On The Road: Southwork and the South.

I got to the party late, the band was just about to go on and I charged down the steps of a house party in our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, with an $8 bottle of whiskey and my camera. The people stared at me from the darkness of the basement with judgmental glares. I was too busy shotgunning a beer and chugging a disgusting amount of Canadian Blended gut-rot with the drummer to notice that I just committed a cardinal sin of house parties. When you’re a complete stranger don’t show up looking like you’re about to wreck shit.

The band was Southwork, a seven piece rock outfit based here in Philadelphia mixing layered vocal harmonies with a two-man brass section that culminates to one of the more unique local music experiences I try to never miss out on. Their drummer, the omnipresent party god in every city across this country Joe Reno, invited me down to the show while I was sitting in a South Philly dive bar smoking a cigarette only a few hours before I arrived in DC.

The band was kicking off their 40 day tear from venue to venue across the country. They were embarking on a journey to see the best and worst of this land through the dirty windshield of a van like these long-time members of the Philly music scene have done an innumerable amount of times before. The show kicked in and they played fast and hard. There comes a point in every musician’s life where there is no note they cannot play, or riff, or chord. Years of honing their dexterity and practicing music theory will cause a musician to form a bond with the sonic output of their profession to the point where anything is possible. As I once heard Rory Cain of the High Five say to his band during practice: “If I needed someone who can just play the notes I’d have one of my students do it, I need someone who can fuckin’ rock.” The members of Southwork were enlisted among the ranks of musicians that could not only play the notes but could fuckin’ rock.

Evidence of this was mounting as the room started to sway and eventually dance to the tunes. Even with little space to work the band was blasting energy from every pore on their bodies. When the music ended we trudged back up the steps and I went to go have a smoke outside. A DJ in the middle of the living room set to work spinning vinyl records and keeping the party going for everyone else. Outside I continued to swig from the bottle of whiskey while laughing with the other smokers. These strangers accepted me into their lives fast when they realized this tattooed whiskey chugging dude from Philadelphia was not going to start smashing furniture and walls.

The next morning I woke up at a house a few blocks away. The smell of coffee, apple pie, and breakfast wafted passed my nose and alleviated any hangover I might have had. Outside was a cloudless blue sky and a sun that warmed my skin while I took a puff of a cigarette, coffee mug in my hand. The sounds of a blues record on the vinyl player tickled at my ears from behind the open front door to my back. After years of waking up on splintery hardwood floors while graffiti covered walls loomed over me with nothing more than a “get out” to greet me in the morning this was heaven. I walked back inside with a grin that I could not get rid of if I even wanted to try to.

I parted ways with Southwork and headed south down I-95 to Richmond, VA with Squid, my South Philly compatriot and traveling partner for this adventure. The windows were down and the trees zipped by as the air warmed up with each mile marker that we passed. Cigarette ash dotted my unzipped black hoodie from chain-smoking cheap Virginia cigarettes. Ten minutes into town and we were striking up a conversation with an Israeli exchange student at VCU who gave us his number and told us to come with him and his friends to a festival. We debated over a delicious breakfast at Cafe 821 whether we should go or not.

“Fuck it,” Squid and I thought. We were all partied out from the night before and opted to just lay in the park letting the light of the day defrost some of the Philly chill that was still at the center of our bones. I stared up at the treetops remembering old romances and good times, lost in contemplation. After almost falling asleep we stood and hit the streets to find a bar to immerse ourselves.

Walking around a strange city is an experience I can’t liken to anything else. You’re a little overwhelmed, and maybe even scared, because the tall buildings tower up around you and judge you for looking at them. You think every person who sees you knows that you’re from out of town, you’re foreign, and you’re weird to them. After you adjust your bearings and gird your courage against these poisonous notions it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone that wants to show you everything their town has to offer.

This time this person was our bartender at a bar we ended up at in a part of the city known as “The Fan”. Hip boutiques, instrument shops, bars, restaurants, and small trees lined the roads of this neighborhood with wide streets and slow, lazy foot traffic akin to a Saturday evening in the south. Our new guide to the city was just getting off of work and invited us out to a gay bar with him and his girlfriend. We hit the Richmond nightlife which was a pleasant surprise.

Above the Mason-Dixon Line we tend to look at any southern state as a pretty terrible place to be. It permeates our Yankee zeitgeist that anything below DC is a backwoods cesspool of racism, meth, toothless hillbilly rape, and moonshine. I’ve never thought this was a complete truth, or heard many people who did, but it’s the stereotypes that people who don’t know any better tend to perpetuate with tongue-in-cheek quips about a place they’ve never been to. Granted, moonshine distilling is a pretty awesome stereotype, but I might be biased there.

And here I was doing a body shot out of the cleavage of a large middle-aged Hispanic woman at a gay club packed wall-to-wall. One that our straight bartender took us to in a place that is supposed to be pigeonholed as backwards, ignorant, and devoid of culture. Fuck that.

We later parted ways with our new-found friends and traded information so that if we ever came back we could do it all over again. Running low on gas, the oil light clicking on, no money left in our pockets, and of course a sober driver, we headed home. The rising morning sun welcomed us back to the north. Besides a few stops to scrape change off the floor of the car for tolls it was smooth sailing all the way back to the city of Brotherly Love. The end of a trip where I learned an important lesson about being a judgmental Yankee prick.


Skinny Pete