Ramie Reviews Drugdealer at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia

Ramie Reviews Drugdealer at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia

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Ramie heads back to Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia to take part in the Drugdealer experience.

As fans of Drugdealer are well aware, the songs this band produces are kind of all over the place. While their songs are mostly on the slower side, they cover a wide range of genres and incorporate artists from many other groups, including Ariel Pink, Weyes Blood, and Harley and the Hummingbirds to provide a distinct vocal to many of their songs. Because several of their tracks involve guest singers and backup vocalists, the question of how their works would translate to the live stage was anyone’s guess. RPM’s Ramie Fathy graciously took it upon him to answer this question in person.

Straight out of the gate, Drugdealer seized the audience’s attention with a groovy, bluesy sound that at first appeared unlike the rest of their musical oeuvre. After injecting the crowd with energy with their intro, the group deftly transitioned into a slower section that alternated between solos from the trumpet and a melodica that seemed to appear out of nowhere, with the rhythm and melody being driven throughout by the band’s ringleader, Michael Collins, on the synth. Each riff seemed as improvised as the last, keeping the audience on their toes and looking forward to a show of surprises.

Just when listeners started to get comfortable, the band changed tones to a more rock-n-roll vibe before abruptly picking up the pace and transitioning into the first familiar tune of the night, “Lonely”. While the traditional version of this piece is a slower song with a touch of a Cowboy Psych influence, the live rendition was upbeat, with a bass-driven rhythm and an energetic keyboard backing.

Looking at the band’s members, you get the sense that this is a rag-tag group, and you wonder how this seemingly disparate set of characters ended up in a band together. Just based on their outfits, you can tell that their personalities are sort of all over the place. Michael Collins sat behind his keyboard with his hair almost reaching his shoulders and his eyes hidden behind his – what would you call it – like a fishing bucket hat? Sasha Winn, the vocalist, had climbed onstage in a paisley sport coat with his man bun neatly tied up atop his head, sitting on a pillow of hair. Meanwhile, the band’s bassist, Shags Chamberlain (yes, that is his real name, and yes, I am jealous) had picked out a matching Chinese tracksuit with gold patterning down the arms and the single word “Rock” etched into it. I don’t think I could go without mentioning Josh Da Costa, the band’s drummer, whose hair reached down almost to his abdomen, with the exception of the left side of his head, which had been buzzed down almost to the scalp. 

After the band hit the final notes of “Lonely”, Michael Collins’ greeting to the audience, “We’re back in the illadelph – where failed Baltimore residents come to live”, was met with a loud mix of laughter, cheers, and applause. The band had played in Philadelphia once before, a year prior, also in Johnny Brenda’s. In conversation after the show, Collins shared that he felt that the turnout was much larger the second time around, and from this writer’s perspective, I’d believe it. The place was sold out, and the show was packed. JB’s is usually a spacious venue, but for this show, attendees had  to weave their way through the audience to get around, a testament to the strength of the Drugdealer’s fanbase. Some audience members reported commuting from as far as the Jersey Shore or central Delaware just to see the band live. They did not leave disappointed.

Next up on the set list was “The End of Comedy”. This would be the first major challenge to the band, as the recorded version includes Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering wide-ranging vocals. But audience members actually stood agape as even the songs highest notes were absolutely and effortlessly crushed by the band’s lead singer, Sasha Winn, an artist whose unique talent and personality may be best captured by his one-man opera. During this and several of the other songs, the band was joined onstage by Kenny Anderson on the trumpet, harmonizing with the vocalist and adding a distinctly different sound from the original track. By the end of the song, it was clear that Drugdealer had no problem recreating and even outdoing the recorded versions of their songs.

The band had struggled with some initial sound difficulties, but by the fourth song, Fools, they figured out the right balance and volume for the different instruments. Michael Collins offered his voice for the vocals on this one, adding  a raspy tone on top of the groovy keyboard and the funk of Shags’ bass, which again propelled the song forward. The harmonic chorus from Winn and Benjamin Schwab was outshone only by Michael Long’s punchy guitar solo. What became clear while watching this band perform is that, even though they appear to be from different walks of life, the members are really a group of extremely musically-talented friends who happened to start performing together. When asked after the show how he’d met the other members of the band, Collins gave the example of Kenny Anderson, who had played the trumpet intermittently during the show. The two had met many years earlier while skateboarding and it wasn’t until recently that Collins learned that Anderson could play the trumpet, which prompted him to invite him to join the band while touring. 

The band slowed it down with “Lost in My Dream” before taking a break between songs to announce that they’d be beginning their recordings on a new album the following day in New York City. To the audience’s delight, the band then proceeded to share some of these new works that they’d be recording. This taste of the new songs had a mix of familiar sounds combined with funkier instrumental sections. To this writer, it was the bassist who shone during these sections, finally getting another chance to show his dynamicity and ability to drive a rhythm and riff off the melody.

Perhaps to help the audience cool down, Drugdealer took it slow once again on their “If You Don’t Know Now, You Never Will”. The band closed out the show with the fan-favorite (for good reason), “Suddenly”, which was immediately greeted with cheers from the crowd. Starting out minimalistically with a few notes or chords from a few of the instruments to accompany Winn’s vocals, the song flipped back and forth between more spirited rhythm sections and slower vocal bits. Unsurprisingly, the crowd wanted more and began the familiar chant of “one more song” as soon as the band began to leave the stage. And the band was happy to oblige, returning to the stage to pump out a fast-paced, high-energy mini-set that had the remaining audience members jumping around one last time on the dance floor. 

The thing that makes Drugdealer so much fun and so enjoyable to so many different people – the thing that filled Johnny Brenda’s more than this writer had ever seen before – is that they can produce music that is at the same time familiar and novel, and their music isn’t limited to a single sound or tradition. In that way, Drugdealer’s music is sort of like the band’s members themselves, seemingly diverse and disconnected, yet somehow unified. Reflecting back on the show, I realized that this band could have easily re-created the sound one enjoys on their albums, even without the guest artists, added instrumentals, or vocal backing. At times, they did just that during this performance. What they also demonstrated was that they could take those familiar songs and tweak them enough to make them even more impressive, accessible, and somewhat new, giving the show’s attendees a novel experience and an added appreciation for the band’s music.

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