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Philly's First Time's The Charm, featuring 16 new bands / by Jenn Pelly

Can you feel music more if you are inside of it? As a non-musician of many years it is something I’ve wondered. You don’t have to make music to get it, obviously—in fact distancing yourself from the process, or from the scene, offers necessary and valuable perspective. Even for the most skeptical of non-musicians, the divide between “musician” and “fan” can sometimes make what an artist does seem like magic. But that line is so slim. It doesn’t take much to destroy. Setting the question of technical skill aside, why does one creative person find an instrument or voice, and not another? Are today’s best musical ideas inside the minds of people too careerist for music? What if Patti was like, “Hey Lenny, on second thought, I’ll just read the poems alone…”

Such thoughts trickled through my head in the week leading up to First Time’s the Charm, a radically inclusive music festival in Philadelphia last weekend that encouraged people to believe in themselves. The festival’s intersectional goals were well-defined from the outset: First Time’s sought to usher new, underrepresented faces into the Philadelphia D.I.Y. music community. Taking cues from similar festivals in Portland and New Orleans, registrant bands were required to meet at least two of the following guidelines: A band member identified as female, trans, queer, and/or a person of color; a person playing in a band for the first time; a musician taking a shot at a brand new instrument. Even those with no one to play with could have attended a public meeting (an ice cream social, no less) to find potential bandmates. One group, the wonderfully titled Mermaid Parade, who impressively switched off instruments throughout their set, did so.

We who made it into the quickly-sold out Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art—a dimlit former showroom of tombstones that now serves as a residential underground art space—were in many cases paying to watch people cross that line from “fan” to “performer.” It demystified what it means to take a stage donning cool sunglasses banging on a drum kit or unleash blissful ear-piercing shrieks into a microphone for five minutes. But before the sixteen bands took the tiny stage, the atmosphere was already supportive and properly exciting. It felt especially so, for me, as a New York resident, where limited space, the exclusivity of punk, and the general constant overflow of upstart bands trying to “make it” could cause a show like this to be a bit more overwhelming to organize (though we still ought to try). Something very worthy in a festival like First Time’s the Charm, though, is how, despite performing your first show for 200 people, it can abate stage-fright about missing a note or some other little pre-show grievance. The music was good, but enthusiasm for each band’s contribution to the show’s greater idea is what kept the mood high.

And so, there was female-fronted hardcore and angelic pop-punk, tear-stained acoustic ballads and camp. My favorite sounds were the squeaky proto-punk of Calamity Janes and skinny-chord post-punk of Marge. There was a fun, elemental take on “Be My Baby”, a folk-punk approach to “Play Crack the Sky”, even a full-band shot at “Baby, Hit Me One More Time”. There was a song about starting a goat farm. There were a bunch of beaming parents, and several front-row hype squads. There was at least one back-patch broadcasting the relevant mantra of “No Gods, No Masters, No Smartphones.” There was a disco ball and a vintage claymation projected on loop and there were delicious vegan tacos. There was but one performer to bravely take the stage alone, the brand new singer-songwriter Meri Haines. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had,” Haines said, smiling, before leaving the stage.

Organized by the show-listing group DIY PHL, and fueled by the energy of Philadelphia’s recent Ladyfest, the event’s second purpose was to raise money for a community P.A. share, which would make sound equipment available for organizing shows, plays, protests, or any other creative event requiring amplified sound. Over $1,900 were raised by the show—thankfully, as First Time’s the Charm was not without unfortunate sound issues—but I think the event’s greater successes will be more personal. The show was a quaint but welcomed reminder that playing music with friends is a thing you can do for fun, that you can be idea-driven and musically ambitious without taking it too serious. I could hear scheming for new bands before the room had even cleared. And I admit (albeit hesitantly) that on the bus ride home I couldn’t help but casually hum a melody in my head, tap out a couplet and send it to a friend.

Photos by Sharp Hall

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