Unbeknownst to many, the Gloria Dei (aka, Old Swedes’) Episcopalian Church in the historic Queen Village area of Philadelphia has been home to a burgeoning Americana-centered music scene. Fostered by the church’s on- site Sexton, Jim Minacci, and his wife Paula, their Sexton Sideshow collaborative has been welcoming up-and-coming as well as established singer-songwriters and bands to their monthly musical Sunday brunches and related events for almost a decade.
During these collegial brunches, the musicians take turns performing for each other while their cohorts chow down on pancakes, pastries and scrambled eggs; when not performing or eating, they’re free to supply helpful feedback, forge new musical alliances and simply enjoy the camaraderie of fellow artists.
Later this month the Minaccis will be hosting their 8th annual Memorial Day music fest and family picnic, which typically runs all day in the church’s adjoining walled-in yard. (The schedule for this year’s festival can be found at https://www.facebook.com/SextonSideshow/ .) Jim has also curated Wednesday night Live Local shows and Vinyl Nights at the nearby Irish bar For Pete’s Sake for the past several years, along with all-day Make Music Philly events in the church sanctuary.
The Minaccis do all this because they love live local music (not just Americana and roots music, but pop-rock, rap, and folk as well) and because they know how game-changing it can be for musicians to feel that they are part of a caring, supportive community. As the Sexton Sideshow Facebook page puts it: “Our hope and mission for Sexton Sideshow is to bring our community together in a safe place to enjoy incredible homegrown music, delicious food and to interact with the community and build fellowship.”
’Tis a beautiful and wondrous thing, this community they’ve nurtured, and the Philadelphia music scene has been the lucky beneficiary of the Minaccis’ stewardship. Over the years the Minacci collective has helped launch and/or support such notable Philly-area bands as Cowmuddy, John Faye & Those Meddling Kids, John Train, Hannah Taylor & the Rekardo Lee Trio, Hurricane Hoss, LadyFingers, Low Cut Connie, Macadocious, No Good Sister, Pawnshop Roses, Sweetbriar Rose, The River Bones and Uke Ellington, as well as individual artists like Mike “Slow-Mo” Brenner, T.C. Cole, Jessica Grae, Marion Halliday, Every Heard, Kuf Knotz, Julia Levitina, Shakey Lyman, the Revr’end TJ McGlinchy, Andrea Nardello, Ben O’Neill, Morgan Pinkstone, Sara B Simpson, and many, many others.1
One of the best known and at this point longest-tenured bands to spring from the fertile grounds of Gloria Dei is The Midnight Singers, formerly known as The North Lawrence Midnight Singers. Centered on acoustic guitarist/vocalist Jamie Olson, who also pens the lyrics for most of the band’s songs, lead guitar player and supporting vocalist Todd Zamostien, and bassist/vocalist Nick Mazzuca, the Singers have been a fixture in the Minaccis’ extended musical family in one form or another for the past decade or so. Along with their full band appearances, Olson has played solo at Gloria Dei many times, while Zamostien has played under the moniker Bastards of Earle, his solo side project.
The Singers’ 2010 sophomore release, Last Great Saturday Night, was named the #1 Local Album by readers of radio station XPN’s local music-focused website The Key, but they’ve released just one EP since then. Their third and latest full album, Nowhere Else, sees them honing their rootsy, Jayhawks and Gram Parsons-infused sound while further extending their already wide circle of contributing players. Reflecting the community-minded ethos of the Minaccis, the insert for the vinyl version of the album features a photo-collage of the “great SINGERS community” (aka, the record’s contributors), that includes no fewer than 23 individual musicians and engineers.
Clearly, the Singers embrace the “it takes a village” approach to music- making. As a result, Nowhere Else’s eight tunes feel packed to the gills with goodness.
Olson’s lyrics are simple and direct but abundantly hooky, and the hummable, airy melodies afford the band members — particularly guitar tone-master Zamostien — ample room to add a constant but varying stream of sonic supplements, whether in the form of effects-pedal tones, layered vocal harmonies, or rhythmic shifts and stops. Longtime drummer and local session musician Cornelius Simpkins anchors the album masterfully with his solid and subtly dynamic timekeeping.
A perfect example of this winning blend can be found ultra ear-wormy “California,” in which the singer begs a friend to “tell me all you know about California” since “this here east is killing me.” “Could it be that little slice of heaven for me?” the protagonist wonders; “train runnin’ thru my head / won’t let me rest / all aboard headin’ west / I wanna smile like you.”
It’s a simple song about a common desire: to find a better, happier place to live. While Olson’s yearning vocals — whose timbre resembles that of former Jayhawk Mark Olson (no relation) — paint that picture, the band adds some flangey guitar vibes, a loping bass line, some organ flavoring, sweet vocal harmonies, and a steadily thumping drum line. It’s a 4:07 minute masterpiece of sonic evocativeness.
Other highlights include “Hey Pilot,” with its gripping tale of a passenger’s worried concern about a pilot’s desperate, possibly suicidal state of mind; the rootsy “Fine Dust,” with its greasy slide guitar accents, cool stops, and bumpin’ bass line; the bouncy, impossibly catchy “Rabbit on the Run”; and the album’s alternately rockin’ and delicate closer, “Mother of Mercy.”
Though I’ve singled those five tracks out, all eight of the album’s cuts are strong — there’s not a lemon in the bunch — and together they create a pleasantly diverse yet tightly coherent musical tapestry. If you’re in the mood for some simple but affecting lyricism, climbing vocal harmonies, super-solid ensemble playing, and alternately chimey, twangy and trebly guitar tones, I heartily recommend this latest effort from one of Philly’s best Americana/roots outfits.
And if you’re ever in town, make sure you check out one of the many Sexton Sideshow-sponsored musical events at Gloria Dei. Don’t forget to thank the Minaccis for all the great local music they’ve been incubating.
More info on the Midnight Singers can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/ midnightsingers/
The album Nowhere Else, along with their EP Rockin’ the Neighborhood and Last Great Saturday Night (as The North Lawrence Midnight Singers) can be found on iTunes and other streaming services.
1 Some other great Philadelphia-area Americana acts that haven’t been directly involved in the Minaccis’ downtown community but that also reflect the Philly area’s vibrant Americana/Roots scene include The Wissahicken Boys, The Twenty-Niners, Hezekiah Jones, Wheelhouse, Slowey & the Boats, Sparklepony, The Miners, Cavan Curren, and a bit further south (in and around Wilmington, DE), Michael Davis’s long-running rockabilly band The Bullets, The Quixote Project and Couple Days. And that’s just the acts I am personally acquainted with; there are doubtless many others equally worthy of mention.
I would be remiss not to mention also Philly’s vibrant and long-running folk scene, centered around the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which is going on its 58th year now.