Non-Comm is the annual Triple A radio conference hosted by WXPN in Philadelphia, and held at that city’s wonderful venue, World Cafe Live. The conference draws radio programmers from all over the country for a series of panels, seminars, and live music performances over the course of two and a half days. Since most artists are interested in an opportunity to impress radio people, the musical lineup tends to be strong every year, and features artists who would not normally be playing a venue the size of World Cafe Live. Best of all, tickets for most of the Non-Comm events are available to the general public.
This was my second year at Non-Comm. I’m drawn by the music, but I also appreciate the opportunity to take the temperature of the radio people on hand, and find out what’s on their minds during these turbulent times in the music industry. There is also a chance to meet a lot of the musicians because they tend to hang out at the venue before and after their sets more than they would at a regular tour stop.
I wasn’t able to go for the entire event, so I missed performances by the likes of Gaslight Anthem, Minus the Bear, and Dr. Dog on the opening day, but I arrived in time the next day to catch a lunchtime set by singer/songwriter Martin Sexton, who was there to promote his recently released album, Sugarcoating, and Boston’s Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed, whose major label debut, Come and Get It, comes out in August.
The sets tend to be short at Non-Comm, but that can be a good thing. I don’t mean that to be pejorative, only that it really forces the artists to focus their setlist and performance. Sexton’s fine craftsmanship came through on songs like “Found, “Boom Sh-Boom,” and “Livin’ the Life,” all from the new album. The last time I saw Eli Reed and his band, they were raucous and soulful, but rather chaotic. Their performance at Non-Comm was a revelation. Everything has been tightened up, but none of the power of the eight-piece band has been lost. I loved “Name Calling,” and “Just Like Me” from the new album. This young soul man has a very bright future ahead of him.
The afternoon brought a very interesting session that featured a discussion between World Cafe host David Dye, and author Tom Moon, who wrote the terrific book 1,000 Recording To Hear Before You Die. Moon spoke about the painstaking process of putting the intricately researched book together, and of course there were lots of questions about music that was included, and even more about what was left out. It was a great session.
Then it was back to live music with a performance by a young Los Angeles band called the Rescues.Their digital version of their major label debut, Let Loose the Horses, comes out tomorrow (physical version July 6), and if their set in Philadelphia was any indication, expect to hear a lot about them. The four-members, two women and two men, write great songs, switch off on instruments, and all sing really well. Among the bands I had never heard before, I was most impressed with the Rescues, and I was hardly alone in that assessment. The Rescues were followed by the New Zealand singer/songwriter Gin Wigmore, playing songs from her new album, Holy Smoke. Wigmore did fine, but the Rescues proved to be a tough act to follow.
After the dinner break, it was time for a star-studded evening session, or should I say two evening sessions. On the smaller upstairs stage, Cindy Lauper appeared with her new blues-oriented band. Other acts upstairs included Ike Reilly, the Mynabirds, and Nathaniel Rateliff. I wasn’t able to catch any of them though, because I opted for the larger downstairs stage. Opening the festivities down below was Robert Francis, who frankly didn’t do all the much for me. No matter, because from that point on, the evening took off. First up was a fantastic collaboration between Philadelphia heroes John Legend, and the Roots. Their completely captivating set featured takes on songs by Eugene McDaniels (“Compared To What”), Bill Withers (“I Can’t Write Left-Handed), and fellow Philadelphians Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (“Wake Up Everbody”). The new Roots album, How I Got Over, comes out tomorrow, and the collaboration between Legend and the Roots later this summer.
It didn’t end there though. Another great young soul singer, this time Detroit’s Mayer Hawthorne, and his band the County, were up next. Hawthorne delivered a wonderfully upbeat set of retro soul. Hawthorne played several songs from his latest album, Strange Arrangement, and his set was highlighted by a terrific medley of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” and his own song “One Track Mind.” Hawthorne is another great young talent to keep an eye on.
It’s hard to think that an artist so young can already be considered a legend, but Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, seems to have already achieved that status. Andrews and his band Orleans Avenue closed the night, and their set was just an off-the-wall funk fest. The level of musicianship in the band is astounding, with Andrews displaying impressive chops on trombone and trumpet. Andrews’ performance left the crowd downstairs drained, but everyone had a smile on their face as they left. The latest Trombone Shorty album, Backatown, came out in April.
After some much needed sleep, I was back at World Cafe Live for a morning music session conducted by Sean Coakley of Songlines, at which radio people and WXPN listeners were invited to rate records that are about to be released. Based on what I saw, a song from the new Robert Plant album achieved the highest scores (we all had cards numbered 1-10 to hold up), though there were several other good tracks.
Then it was time for the final music performances of the event at another lunchtime show, this one featuring Graham Parker, and the National. Parker played a short acoustic set featuring songs from his new album, Imaginary Television, including “You’re Not Where You Think You Are,” and “It’s My Party,” before closing with his early classic “Heat Treatment.” I’m not so sure it was wise to play an old one because the new songwriting pales in comparison.
Finally, the National were on hand to play songs from their new album High Violet, which is the buzz album of the year thus far. This is one of the things that Non-Comm does best, presenting a band who were in town for two sold-out theater shows in a much more intimate setting, and the National did not disappoint. Their set included High Violet songs like “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and the magnificent “Terrible Love.” To call the short set impressive would be something of an understatement. The National left me feeling awed, which is not an easy thing for a band to do these days. I’ve been a fan of the National for quite awhile, but this was my first chance to see them live. I’ll be back.
And that’s your Non-Comm recap and wrap-up for this year. If you live anywhere near the Philadelphia area, you should try to come down next year. It is a fun, informative, and musically intoxicating few days. Special mention should be made of WXPN Operations Manager, Music Director, and air personality (people tend to wear a lot of hats in Triple A radio) Dan Reed who puts this thing together every year. It’s a big event, and it runs seamlessly. He is assisted by Tess Coffey, that invaluable behind-the-scenes person that every organization needs. I’m not sure how they do it, but they make magic happen. I’m already looking forward to next year.
All photos by David Simchock at Vagabond Vistas. Dave does great work. Please visit his website to see more.
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