Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Nick Krill and Jonathan Low
The West Philadelphia Orchestra is the odd ensemble made up of every shape, creed, color, personality and sex imaginable. It's an indication of the kind of variance that one can find within a neighborhood of row houses in a typical part of the City of Brotherly Love. This was one of the couple handfuls of sessions that we taped in the middle of January of this year at Miner Street Studio there in Philadelphia, during a time when the Eagles were making a run at a Super Bowl title and cold weather was downright unbearable for a normal Philly winter. During a flu season, the group could be missing eight players and it would still have a full band that could fill a small room. As the friends and found acquaintances - all randomly bonding over a love for joyous melody-making and an Eastern European style of play that frowns on rules or obligations - staggered into the studio this early evening, there were at least three members who had work commitments that they'd have to cut out early for. There were family dinners that needed attending for some of the more seasoned and mature members. There were those who lived closer than others, riding bikes through the bitterness to rendezvous with the rest of the clan - a congregation of folks that quickly, upon gathering, created a substantial amount of body heat in the high-ceilinged live room with a view that supposedly, formerly looked out on a warehouse-y building where pornography was shot. The 14 members - almost all present on this day - form a hodge podge collective that might very possibly have relatively few things in common other than the music they play when they've all whet their whistles, stretched their arms and hands, and oiled all of their moving parts. It's hard to picture the many members all meeting through various connections and introductions and showing up at a townie bar to begin jamming together because their differences seem as if they would place all in isolated parts of the bar, hunkering down with their drinks and some peanut or other random bar food. The band, led by Gregg Mervine, coalesces so many free-wheeling vibrations into its finished product, which is such a mutt that there's no term for it. They prefer to just insist on calling it joyous and inspirational, the kind of combination of heritages and feelings that lead to something so random and immediately interesting. Every piece of the orchestra stands out, offering its own personal splashes of attitude and flair - all pieces deserving and wanting of more volume and a grander stage or spotlight. All of the sounds work together the way everyone in a volunteer fire department's unit do, arriving at the fire with separate tools but with one mission and that's to extinguish. The West Philadelphia Orchestra arrives on the scene to throw more gas, to raise the dead on their feet and to hopefully get others on the sidelines to join in for a rousing roast.