Despite the youth of its membership, Broadside Electric is Philadelphia's leading and longest-lived electric folk band, celebrating their tenth anniversary of "Folk Music With Teeth" in 2000. They have earned a solid reputation for thoroughly original arrangements and painstaking research into traditional English, Celtic and Eastern European music. A band equally at home with folk tradition and modern rock innovation, Broadside's unique hybrid sound successfully blends the music of different countries and cultures with a striking consistency.
Broadside Electric has been called "Pennsylvania's answer to Steeleye Span," "folk music's answer to death metal" and a band that "gives members of the usual folk audiences something new to talk about." The quintet has captivated audiences and earned critical praise at dozens of concerts across the northeast. Recent appearances include the Philadelphia Folk Festival (PA), the Baltimore Folk Festival (MD), and venues such as Club Passim (MA), The Cherry Tree (PA) and The Minstrel Coffeehouse (NJ).
Much of the band's repertoire is drawn from scholarly studies of traditional music. A favorite source is B.H. Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads which Jim Speer describes as "the definitive collection of old songs about drowning sailors and murderous elves." A song may exist in dozens or even hundreds of variations from all parts of the English-speaking world. "I think the music is timeless," says Tom Rhoads. "It's exciting to find a great song which hasn't been widely heard in a century or more."
The release of Broadside's self-produced first album, Black-edged Visiting Card (1993), brought them regular airplay on local folk radio shows. The recently re-released second album, Amplificata (1994), captures the band in a live in-studio setting. Their third album, More Bad News ... (1996), adds an even darker and heavier quality to thirteen songs, and was cited by WXPN folk DJ Gene Shay among his top five albums of 1996. Their newest release, With Teeth (1999), finds Broadside Electric in full-tilt progressive folk mode, and the ride never lets up from the first track to the last. The band promises, "This is the only record you'll hear that has a Croatian dance, an English music hall song and a Bob Dylan cover."
The band members feel that their diverse tastes join into a collective identity in arranging and performing traditional music. Tom Rhoads points out: "We try to produce complete pieces which have the depth to reward repeated listening." They use traditional material as a vehicle for their own non-traditional musical ideas. In this way, the band is equally at home with folk tradition and modern rock innovation. On stage and on record, the results of this approach are evident. Folk fans will hear familiar pieces in a refreshing new setting while others will discover the richness of folk traditions embedded in modern multi-layered arrangements.
Broadside Electric features Joe D'Andrea (drums, percussion, vocals), Amy Ksir (flute, tin whistles, oboe, vocals), Tom Rhoads (vocals, guitars, cittern, dulcimer), Jim Speer (Chapman Stick®, bass guitar, recorders, crumhorn) and Helene Zisook (violins, violas, mandolins, vocals).
The origins of Broadside Electric are shrouded in mystery. Some say the idea came to Jim in a dream, and he awoke to find the name of the band scrawled on his forehead in green Magic Marker. Others claim that the band was created by spontaneous generation when a pile of disused instruments in a storage room at Haverford reached critical mass; and a few assert that the band was never formed, but has existed since the Big Bang.
Actually, the truth is that Tom and Jim had played together, mostly for fun, while both were juniors at Haverford majoring in music. Tom was playing on campus as a solo folksinger at the time, and Jim was learning to play bass guitar. Tom became involved in a pickup blues band ("Howling Frog and the Hydraulic Victrola," featuring Jacob Ossar on harmonica) and recruited Jim to be its bass player. Subsequently, they played as a duo on a few occasions.
The following year, Tom and Jim recorded a series of oddball demos on a 4-track borrowed from Alan Rose. The material included a few traditional tunes, notably an early version of "New York Girls." In the process, Tom acquired a taste for Jethro Tull from Jim and Jim picked up a taste for Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span from Tom. At some point, a decision was made to try to form a band the following academic year; Tom invited Rachel to join, while Jim put up posters advertising for "violin, viola, flute or something similar" and a drummer. Helene answered the ad, auditioned and was asked to join. (A drummer was auditioned, but eventually it was decided that the band would be limited to a quartet.)
This could be called the "campus band." The group began rehearsing in September 1990, played a brief showcase at a Haverford Folk Society meeting in October, and put on its first full show on December 8th in the Lunt Cafe (a basement coffee shop in a Haverford dorm, and the first in a long series of coffeehouses). This lineup performed irregularly on the Haverford and Bryn Mawr campuses into the summer of 1991. The last performance by this lineup was around Labor Day of 1991, at the (then newly opened) Red Raven coffeehouse in Kimberton, PA. This was also Broadside Electric's first off-campus performance.
The band built their music around the combination of individual members' influences: Rachel's deep knowledge of traditional (especially dance) music, Helene's classical training, Tom's traditional and folk-revival songs and Jim's progressive-rock tastes. Many songs emphasized double lead instruments (violin and concertina), usually over a guitar/bass or guitar/keyboard rhythm section, while others delved into a wide range of sounds - one piece, "Horse's Branle," utilized no less than 15 different instruments, with band members taking turns switching from one instrument to another. Most of the original arrangements were of tunes, with the songs coming from records (especially by Fairport Convention, Silly Wizard and Steeleye Span). A few original arrangements of songs, including "Blackleg Miner" and "Greenland Whale Fisheries," marked the early growth of an independent style. No "official" recordings were produced, but there are a number of 4-track demos and live recordings of varying quality.
Towards the end of the 1990-91 academic year a search was undertaken for a new band member, since Rachel was leaving Philadelphia to do her Watson Fellowship. Several people were auditioned, and Melissa Demian was selected on the strength of her vocal talents, her strong interest in traditional (especially Celtic) music and her unusual instrument (the dulcimer).
Melissa's arrival set off a shift in the band's style. The dulcimer became the main rhythm instrument, and Melissa's singing allowed Tom to play much more electric lead guitar. It also opened up the possibility of arrangements built around vocal duets, and the band's vocal arrangements became richer and more complex (for good examples, listen to "Henry Martin" and the ending of "The Six Questions" on Black-edged Visiting Card). Because of this shift, a lot of repertoire was dropped or changed as the band found a new musical identity. It was also during this period that the band began to explore Eastern European music seriously, and klezmer tunes and (later) Balkan dances began to appear in the mix.
In the fall of 1992 Broadside began work on their first album, Black-edged Visiting Card. The recording process took about 3 months and the record was released at the end of January, 1993. Most of the material on the record was already being played live, but a few pieces were developed from scratch for the album. The project was an ambitious one for a band with so little previous recording experience, and the process proved to be very difficult. (Personal note: in my opinion, the album stands on its own merits, but it took a lot more effort to record than it should have. --Tom) Having the new CD under their belt opened some doors for the band, bringing the possibility of airplay and the potential to interest a broader range of venues at which to play.
Through 1993 and into 1994 the band continued to develop new material and the quality of the live shows improved steadily. The band played in an increasing variety of venues and began to perform outside the Philadelphia area. In 1994, with Melissa leaving the band to pursue a Ph.D., it was decided to document the band's live sound and so the "live-in-the-studio" album Amplificata was recorded in August 1994 (it would be released early the following year).
With Melissa's departure, Broadside Electric found itself at a crossroads. The prospect of searching for a replacement was unattractive and it was decided that the band would continue as a trio at a reduced level of activity. It didn't happen that way, though; instead Jim brought the Chapman Stick® (which he had been playing for a year or two previously) into the band for the first time and a new live set was built around the textural possibilities of the Stick-violin-guitar combination. A fresh burst of creativity produced a substantial amount of new material, and in February 1995 the recording of the third album (under the working title "Frog and Locust") was begun. Progress was intermittent until the fall, with most of the recording sessions taking place from October to December. Melissa returned to provide backing vocals on a few songs. The record, retitled More Bad News ..., was eventually released in March 1996. On the heels of this, the band embarked on its longest tour so far, a 7-show trip taking in 4 New England states.
Late in the spring of 1997, a decision was made to bring new people into the band. This was to expand the band's musical range and to make scheduling more flexible. The new recruits were Joe D'Andrea (drums, percussion and vocals) and Amy Ksir (tin whistle, flute, oboe, and vocals).
Pretty soon, we got to work integrating the new members. The addition of some "new blood" had kicked off a burst of creativity as we developed new repertoire and reworked older material to take advantage of the bigger sound. Our first expanded performance was at the 1997 Philadelphia Folk Festival (with Joe added to the previous trio lineup), and the first quintet concert was held September 13 at Philly's LionFish coffehouse.
| First Lineup: 1990-1991
| Second Lineup: 1991-1994
| Third Lineup: 1994-1997
| Fourth Lineup: 1997-Present
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