On The Road With NPR Music: John Vettese At WXPN, Philadelphia

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling; largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Name: John Vettese

Member station: WXPN, Philadelphia

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Philly Local Show co-host on WXPN; editor, writer, photographer at The Key

1. When people think of music in your city, what do they think of?

A lot of things; different things. Some people think of the Rocky theme, or that Elton John song; ’70s Philly Soul is a big association people have with us, of course – and a good one to have. As far as artists active in present day, it’s not so easy to pin down. The most successful musicians that have emerged from Philly in the past few decades range from hip-hop (The Roots, Meek Mill) to psych-rooted, classic-rock-informed bands (Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs) to wild art-rock (Man Man, Kurt Vile) and singer-songwriters (Amos Lee, Melody Gardot), which, for me, covering the scene, is great – it keeps it fresh and exciting, and doesn’t make Philly music so easily reduced to a “sound.” You know, grunge/Seattle, garage/Detroit, psych/SanFran, punk/DC etc. Philly has all of those things; there’s no one single thing it makes people think of, musically – which I guess is the one common refrain you’ll hear.

2. How do you help curate that musical scene?

I stay open-minded. And I try to showcase a little bit of everything. For about three years now, I’ve produced a weekly series of in-studio recording sessions with Philly musicians – it airs on WXPN on Tuesday evenings and is released as downloadable audio on The Key on Wednesday mornings – and I make sure the artists I bring in for The Key Studio Sessions are, for the most part, representative of that range. This makes for some interesting and unusual week-to-week match-ups. In January / February, for instance, we had a traditional folk trio (The Stray Birds) one week, a rockin’ alt-country five-piece (The Naked Sun) the next, an aggro thrash band (Pissed Jeans) the next. We’ve had metal, hip-hop, experimental, electronic, blues … I’m recording my first Brazilian music band later this spring. I do often wonder, for instance, what the audience that tuned in (or went to the blog) for the emo-punk group the one week might think of the ethereal singer-songwriter the following week. But looking at the bigger picture, I feel like if it didn’t have that kind of range, it wouldn’t really be showcasing Philly.

3. How has that scene evolved over the last few decades?

Kind of like the music scene nationwide, it’s become a lot more self-reliant. Getting a label deal isn’t something bands are realistically expecting. They hope for it, sure, and many take the opportunity when it arises – The War on Drugs are on Secretly Canadian, DRGN King is on Bar/None, etc. But I’ve also heard stories of musicians turning down label deals because they are fine doing it on their own and don’t want to trade that freedom for restrictions or demands from an outside party (in exchange for better exposure, hypothetically anyway). Musicians are really learning to do things themselves – book shows, handle publicity, fund recording projects and put more care and artistry into their self-released products. When I started covering the scene in the late ’90s, self-releases were treated like demos – tossed-off, hastily recorded, quick and cheap things to get an artist’s songs out there, figuring that they’d rerecord them for real once they get signed. And while an EP released to Bandcamp is still, pretty much, a demo, I’m noticing they sound a lot more like finish products than any CD I received ten years ago. (When they go the extra step and press it to vinyl, even better.)

Other changes – the studio scene in Philly has boomed, and rather than a room or two monopolizing everybody’s recordings, there are now between a half-dozen to a dozen major players (in addition to the do-it-yourselfer basement studio types). I like this for a couple reasons – competition is good for business, of course, and it also gives more variety to the recordings that are making it out there, rather than one producer’s sound dominating all corners of the scene.

Live music venues in the city ebb and flow, as they are wont to do, but there’s more of a sense of stability than there was when I began covering Philly music. Johnny Brenda’s and World Cafe Live have been around for a solid six years; new small to midlevel rooms like MilkBoy, Underground Arts and Union Transfer are doing well for themselves; even our 3500-cap room The Electric Factory is pressing on amid somewhat tricky times and a bizarre split with promoter Live Nation that’s probably too inside-baseball to get into here. Suffice it to say, we’ve thrived as a live music scene, against (some) odds.

4. What would you say is the most unique thing about your music scene?

The variety that I mentioned before, which I guess might not be THAT unique – every city has a hiphop scene, a punk scene, a folk scene, etc. But what is unique is the way Philly’s variety is so embraced by the scene players and the scene supporters, and even leads to cross-pollination and collaboration. For instance – there’s an Americana band called The Lawsuits that’s been making a modest amount of local buzz for a year or two now, and they were on a bill last summer with a rap three-piece called Ground Up. Now, to qualify what I’m about to describe – this isn’t a scenario where the former is some sort of funk-based jam band and the latter is some hippie backpacker rap crew, so they were kind of close in sound and style to begin with. The ‘Suits are a very Dylan-esque group, very songwriting-oriented and very much on the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Ground Up, which is uncompromising, hard-hitting, rap-for-rap-fans. But at this show, facilitated somewhat by two managers who grew up together, the band played an opening set, and then stayed onstage to act as the house band for the rap crew. It was great, went over huge with the crowd, and led even further to some studio collaboration that’s so far only yielded a few YouTube videos, but a lot of folks – myself included – are stoked to hear the results.

5. What are three new up and coming bands on your local scene right now and what makes them distinct?

These are all “new” as in within the past five or so years. All unsigned, with strong local fan bases and making outroads across the U.S. and elsewhere.

Hop Along – Punk-informed, introspective and arty rock trio centered by Frances Quinlan’s songwriting. She’s got a unique, powerful voice – one local critic described it really well by saying her singing isn’t classically “lovely” but is gritty, passionate and carries a tremendous range of emotion – and the band’s songs are very expressive, explosive, structurally unconventional and way exciting. They released their latest LP “Get Disowned” last year, toured the U.S. in support of it, and are embarking on their first European tour this spring. Listen to Hop Along’s “Tibetan Pop Stars.”

Cheers Elephant – Zany, playful psychedelic pop/rock foursome with three solid albums, a great track record as performers and the smarts to realize that getting out there and hitting the road is the way to grow your band. They’ve mounted several successful national tours and back home, their past two album release shows have sold out the 800-cap World Café Live. Their latest LP is called “Like Wind Blows Fire,” and it came out last year. Listen to Cheers Elephant’s “Leaves.”

Chill Moody – Somewhat of a minor local celebrity thanks to his masterful knack at working the social media world, Chill Moody has dropped about three mixtapes a year since 2009 and is a true showman, the type who kicks his show off by walking from the lobby, through the crowd, then up onstage. His style is very throwback and easygoing, recalling A Tribe Called Quest and Pharcyde, but he knows how to be hard-hitting without being overly macho. His first commercial album, “RFM,” was released on iTunes this winter. Listen to Chill Moody’s “Cotton.”

6. For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

Aside from the above, here are six tracks that were performed live for The Key Studio Sessions, my aforementioned sessions series.

Gymnopiede 1.2″ – Lush Life

“Bathroom Laughter” – Pissed Jeans

Sugar Sand Stitched Lip” – Heyward Howkins

Saint, Don’t You Lie” – New Sweden

End it On This” – Ethel Cee

Winter Misser” – Bad Braids

[Photo Credit: George Miller III]

Follow our Exclusive NPR Music series during all of April.

The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Washington, DC’s U Street Neighborhood With NPR’s Steve Inskeep

“I wanted you to meet me here because when I think about this neighborhood – the story of how it is now – it begins here,” Steve Inskeep says. “In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a lot of cities and neighborhoods burned, including this one. One of my neighbors was around at that time and he told me that the riot began here, that there was an office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference right along here. A huge crowd gathered outside and someone threw an object through a drugstore window and the riots started.”

We’re standing on a loud corner at the intersection of 14th and U Street in front of the glass and brick Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, where Inskeep is occasionally interrupted by horns and conversations and one very polite panhandler. He tells me how, after the destruction, a lot of the buildings were empty for decades. Then this government center opened and brought jobs with it.

“Restaurants started to re-open,” he says. “People started to renovate houses.” He gestures towards the construction cranes punctuating the cloudy day as he notes how rapidly the neighborhood continues to change.

I’m listening to his words, soaking up the fascinating history lesson, but it’s also impossible not to be just a little distracted by his voice. Inskeep’s well-known tenor has been seeping out of my radio every morning for over a decade. I cannot help but be briefly disoriented by the physical reality of this surprisingly tall man in khaki pants who accompanies the typically disembodied voice.When I ask Inskeep to hold a tape recorder while we walk and talk, he happily obliges, joking that he’s “held a mic once or twice before.” Whenever I ask a question, he deftly shifts the device over my way, making me feel, though not at all uncomfortably, like I’m the one being interviewed.

We amble east on U Street and Inskeep tells me about how different his neighborhood was 12 years ago when he first moved in. With the help of a first-time home buyer’s program, he and his wife scraped together the money to purchase a fixer-upper.

“It has the original cast iron steps, stained glass windows and wood floors,” he says. “Everything else had to be redone. The plumbing had to be redone from the street in. But that’s what we could afford. So we fixed it up ever so slightly and got ourselves in there. We fixed it up some more after we had our first daughter. Actually there are several guys in the basement right now…”

Back then the area was full of vacant lots and buildings.

“Even the businesses that were open would have boarded up windows like they had been boarded up since the ’60s. It looked like a dead zone even if it wasn’t,” he says.

Now the neighborhood, like his home, is in a state of constant renovation.

We pass a gigantic apartment building called The Ellington, named after the jazz legend who grew up here, then stop to admire Lincoln Theater, built in 1922. Inskeep speaks highly of the shows offered here, from films to live performances. As with his other local favorites, he seems equally as passionate about the space as its history. He draws my attention to the venue’s loving restoration as we peek inside at the gold-leaf infused décor.

Our next stop is neighborhood institution Ben’s Chili Bowl, opened in the 1950s. Theirs is a story of endurance.

“It is said to be the only business to survive the catastrophe of this neighborhood after the ’60s and into the ’80s,” Inskeep says. “Even after they started building the metro in here – ripping up business – these guys stayed open.”

Bill Cosby, who attended nearby Howard University, might be called the patron saint of Ben’s. For years, a sign listing folks allowed to eat for free contained only his name. Then, before his inauguration, President Obama showed up. And just like that the list doubled in size. A colorful mural coats one side of the building, Bill and Barack grinning at each other like old friends.

Inskeep points out another favorite food spot across the street: Ulah.

“My wife and I have lunch there all the time,” he says. “It’s a good neighborhood restaurant with a great variety of people.”

Inskeep clearly thrives in diverse urban environments like D.C., telling me: “everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been excited by the cities that I’ve been to.” He offers Kandahar, Baghdad, Cairo, and Karachi as examples.

From abroad we find our conversational way to Hoboken, N.J. We’ve both resided there and I catch myself telling him about how the PATH train is finally up and running again today post Hurricane Sandy, quickly realizing, but not before the words are out of my mouth, that I’m repeating news I heard directly from him at 5:30 that very morning. Still he listens patiently, only the faintest hint of an amused smile, as I regurgitate his morning report.

As we round the corner back to 14th Street, he points out Home Rule, a trendy house wares supplier that was the only upscale store on the block when he moved in. It’s been around for 14 years and was the first place opened after the riots. Now the stretch is lined with trendy new shops: an oaky wine store, a brightly lit veterinarian, a clothing boutique calling out like a Siren to my wallet.

There are few places we don’t have time to see together but that Inskeep thinks are an important part of the neighborhood fabric. He urges me to walk down 13th Street to Logan Circle to see the “spectacular Victorian homes that were mostly vacant 10 or 12 years ago.” Recently they’ve been split into multi-million dollar units.

Later I’ll do just that, then head north up a hill, as he suggests, to take in Cordozo High School, a looming Gothic building under renovation like everything else around here. It’s mid-afternoon by then and the majority of those I pass off the beaten U Street path are construction workers meandering home in groups, guys peeling off one at a time down side streets or at bus stops.

Over lunch, Inskeep mentions the amazing variety of people that exist together in this area. First, this was an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. Then came an influx of Hispanics, followed by white homebuyers. There was gentrification. Bars and restaurants blossomed. There are constant conflicts over what this neighborhood stands for, Inskeep tells me.

“Is it a black neighborhood? A white neighborhood? A diverse area? An entertainment district? A residential area? Is it upscale? Is it downscale? It’s ended up being all of those things in the years that we’ve been here.”

No matter what larger generalizations one might be tempted to make about this area – like any – it’s apparent that Inskeep remains focused on the personal details of the place, just like he does in his journalism. “You don’t want to be abstract,” he tells me. “You want to be specific. You want to tell stories.”

And he’s told me some fascinating ones about this neighborhood over the last few hours – not to mention regaled me with tales about Hurricane Katrina, Charleton Heston, Cairo, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the state of journalism, and, of course, about himself.

At the end of our afternoon, I thank Inskeep for his time – and then I blurt out the kind of favor only a true NPR nerd would ask.

“Would you record the ‘Morning Edition’ intro with me?”

“You want to do what?” he asks, and I cannot tell if he is appalled or amused or somewhere in between. Whatever his feelings regarding the request, he’s game. But not before cautioning: “The sound quality will be terrible.”

And so the last audio recordings from that day are not those of an unflappable journalist collecting material for a story but rather of a giddy fan:

“I’m Steve Inskeep…” he says.

“I’m Rachel Friedman…” I say.

“And you’re listening to ‘Morning Edition’ from NPR news.”

Eat your heart out, Renee Montagne.

About the Wandering Writer:
Steve Inskeep is host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the most widely heard radio news program in the United States. He co-hosts the program with Renee Montagne. Inskeep is the author of “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” published in 2011 by The Penguin Press, a story of ordinary, often heroic people and their struggles to build one of the world’s great megacities. In addition, Inskeep has written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

[Photo Credits: NPR 2003, Debbie Accame; Rachel Friedman]

Video Of The Day: Kiribati Sinking

A Sinking Nation” from NPR on Vimeo.

Kiribati (pronounced kirr-i-bas) is an island nation spread across a chunk of the Pacific Ocean as big as Alaska two times over. But for all of the room Kiribati covers in distance, it accumulates virtually no space vertically. The average height of Kiribati land is just six and a half feet above sea level. Composed of 32 atolls and one raised coral, most of the nation’s 100,000 inhabitants cluster in near the nation’s capital, Tarawa. But space is running out. A single storm effortlessly vanishes houses into the sea and unfortunately, this is the fate most scientists and citizens believe belongs to Kiribati: the sea. According to this video produced by NPR, the island nation is especially vulnerable and in danger. Kiribati President Anote Tong has voiced concern over the rising seas, stating that it could ultimately lead to the demise of island countries like Kiribati. These statements have been loosely countered by findings published in the New Scientist magazine stating that the island is actually expanding due to coral debris. However hopeful land accumulation via coral debris may seem to some, the heart of the matter is that the core of Kiribati may soon be washed away and even newly risen land will likely face the same fate in this low-lying nation.

President Anote Tong's Dilemma

Enterprising New Yorkers help ease Chinese visa woes

Had a problem getting a Chinese tourist visa in New York City? Apparently you’re not alone. Travelers around the web have reported consistent frustration with the Big Apple’s PRC Consulate, with issues ranging from rude employees, to inconsistent approval policies, to prolonged waits.

Travel visa bureaucracy may be nothing new, but the city’s entrepreneurial reaction to it has been intriguing. As NPR reports, some enterprising New Yorkers have managed to create a surprisingly successful business, operated out of a mobile van, to help travelers deal with the hassle.

Adam Humphreys and Steven Nelson, owners of Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants, have become a beacon of hope for travelers turned away by the consulate’s downright baffling policies. For a flat rate of just $20, they’ve set up a mobile van that operates across the street from the consulate, offering printers, helpful advice, updated application forms and fluent Mandarin speakers to assist with travelers problems. According to the report, the business has been wildly successful – the pair are reportedly clearing upwards of $500 a day.

Have you experienced problems getting a Chinese visa? How did you handle it? Leave us a note in the comments.

[Flickr photo by Zach Klein]

Stories from and for the road: NPR Road Trips

If you’re like me, you already think that an NPR story is a good listen. But add a quirky travel destination or persona to the mix, and you’re one happy NPR-listener.

A new CD series–NPR Road Trips–has just been released by NPR and HighBridge Audio. It includes: Roadside Attractions, National Park Adventures, and Postcards from Around the Globe.

I imagine the stories being enjoyed best at the source of their inspiration: on a good cross-country trip–the kind where you’re six hours in, and the only thing keeping you from insanity is counting sheep and sucking down that mediocre cup of coffee you picked up from the last truck stop.

Travel along to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas or camel-racing robots in Dubai. And to keep things lively, the stories come in short bursts–eight minutes at most.

You can pick up one of the CDs from bookstores–either the real thing or online–or the publisher or NPR itself.