Jack Firneno, the Wire
Arguably, two of guitarist Matt Roth’s most important shows were at a strip club in Philadelphia and a hookah bar in Texas.
They may not have been the most well-attended — he’s since gone on to play for thousands of people at festivals throughout the country — but those were the gigs that set the stages for the next phases of his musical career.
He played that first one at 18 years old, in the establishment’s parking lot as part of an event thrown by a local music collective, and it was just high-profile enough to elevate his band from playing the usual high school band gigs around Northeast Philadelphia to ones at prestigious clubs around the city.
“It was really cool to be a high school kid and playing the Grape Street Pub or the Tritone,” he recalled. “That show opened us up to the bigger music scene in Philadelphia.”
The second occurred years later, when he had moved to Austin, Texas ostensibly to wrap up his degree in communications but also to be immersed in a vibrant music town. After a few years of setting up shows he hooked up with Carrie Fussell, the singer-songwriter with whom he co-founded the band Calliope Musicals.
“Her voice was amazing, and she had that magnetic energy that most people just don’t have,” recalled Roth.
Calliope Musicals bills itself as “psychedelic party folk, disco honky-tonk” and, as silly as it sounds, it’s an apt description. Songs like Dancing Shoes or The Adventurer have their roots in blues-based rock, the latter boasting a distinct Black Keys boogie vibe. Alternately, there’s a healthy dose of urban folk behind a track like 92, with a vibraphone meshing with Roth’s acoustic guitar.
But those tried and true elements are just the beginning, not the end result. Rather, there’s a sense of adventure, both sonically and subconsciously in the tracks. It’s apparent when, say, the lead guitar slips suddenly out of key to create a sense of topsy-turvy tension or when the band sounds like it has twice as many members with big, vibrant passages.
All in all, it’s the sound of a group of people that, after years of building a large fan base in their hometown, is now “touring the country and living their dream,” according to Roth.
It’s exciting stuff, playing for a sold-out club in Austin, thousands in an outdoor festival in Nova Scotia or even a bowling alley somewhere in between. And, when the band returns to Roth’s old stomping grounds, for instance, they won’t be taking the stage at a big club in the city: they’ll be in a backyard in Bensalem.
Calliope Musicals will be one of nearly a dozen bands playing all day at an old farm house on Route 13, where the owners regularly host events like this one. “House parties are the best. They have the most genuine people that care.” said Roth. “You see people going back to that primal instinct, where they just want to get together and listen to music.”
Shows like these are integral when Calliope Musicals hits the road for weeks at a time. They’ll set up a few festival dates that draw thousands and pay the band well, and play smaller, more intimate gigs like these in between.
“We play DIY venues more than we do bars or clubs,” noted Roth. “Sometimes it’s not as exciting because it’s in a batting cage or something. But the few people that are there are the most interested in music.”
There’s a balance to it, he explained: “With a venue, you get more press. With a house party, you get fans.”
In fact, the band learned that bigger is not always better when they arrived at their first festival, Joshua Tree in California, early last year. “It was the first time we’d gotten a letter of acceptance to a festival, where they give you an offer and put it all in writing,” said Roth. “It was most impactful when we got that and realized we were going from band playing in Austin to a touring band.”
It’s not to say their experience there wasn’t fun — it certainly was. The crowd was the biggest they’d played for to date and the performance was “an explosion of energy,” according to Roth. “When you’ve maybe played for 100 people, it’s the greatest thing in your life.”
But the festival sold more than 1,000 tickets while their slot was early in the lineup and only boasted a fraction of those attendees. It was still a huge crowd for them, and it opened the doors to the many festivals they play now, to bigger crowds and at better times during the event.
To get on that bill, however, they played a competition-style show in Austin that saw a few hundred more people sell out a club. That local show, he argued, was more fun than the actual performance in California. “We were so focused on that moment, we were like a ball of energy ready to go off. It was unreal,” Roth said.
He uses the word “energy” a lot when talking about the band: how they feel when they’re on stage, what first attracted him to Fussel and what it feels like to be playing as much as he does now. And, as the Calliope Musicals progresses, playing bigger shows more often and further from home, that feeling only gets stronger.
“We’re doing exactly what we wanted to do in life and it’s a blast,” said Roth. “All I want to do in life is play music. To be on the cusp, to be in the band that may make it, it’s exciting.”
Calliope Musicals is playing the Hidden House on Route 13 in Bensalem on Saturday, July 18. For information, set times and address, visit www.calliopemusicals.com or www.facebook.com/pages/The-Hidden-House/428919500542531.