By FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
You hear the name Crosstown Traffic and you might think that they’re a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. Sure, they play Hendrix, but the band’s repertoire encompasses so much more. The versatile ensemble performs rock, jazz/fusion and R&B standards by artists including Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and Billy Cobham, as well as a few original tunes.
The core band — comprised of keyboardist and band founder Wally Smith (Quincy, Smash Palace), guitarist Greg Davis (Beru Revue) and drummer Rockin’ Ronny Crawford (The Daves, June Rich) — created a late night scene in Philadelphia in the early 90s that was like no other.
“I’m totally psyched,” said Ronny Crawford about this concert. It might not be as high-profile as some of his other musical endeavors over the years — he has performed and toured with Lisa Loeb, Anna Nalick, Jeffrey Gaines and Sharon Little (as a support act on the 2008 Robert Plant/Alison Krauss tour) – but Philly is his adopted home and his Crosstown bandmates are some of his best friends.
“We’ve been dying to do a show,” continues Crawford, who now lives in Portola Valley, Calif. “Every year Greg’s wife (Michi) said ‘You always promise, Ronny, and (you never come)’ and for about three years she was right… So finally we get to play again, and the last time we did (it) was so much fun and so many people came out from the old days … and it was such a cool reunion of all the people who used to jam to Crosstown.”
It’s no surprise that some of Philly’s best musicians would want to perform together. What is surprising is how Crosstown Traffic and their now legendary Monday night residency began.
“It started in ’91,” recalls Smith. “I lived in West Philly and I needed a place to keep my Hammond organ. So one day I went up to Harry Walsh, (owner of the now-defunct Walsh’s Tavern) and said ‘Can I put my big Hammond in this corner that’s not being used, and while we’re at it can you give me Monday nights to do a trio project?’ So really, it began as a home for the Hammond organ.”
Besides needing a place to keep his Hammond, Smith wanted to put together a band “to play organ trio–style music — cover the bass on the keyboard and work with a guitarist and a drummer.” After a few line-up changes “it became obvious that the Ronny, Greg and Wally chemistry was pretty solid,” said Smith, and that is the version of the band that stuck. “We were all serious about wanting to play some hard, fast, energetic material together. We wanted to improvise with a jazz mindset but still coming from a rock background.”
During the same time period, Smith and Davis were also members of the Last Minute Jam Band, the house band at J.C. Dobbs that hosted the Last Minute Jam on Tuesday nights.
Unlike the open jam format at Dobbs, “We made it clear that (Monday nights at Walsh’s) was our night to experiment and improvise and try different ideas,” said Smith. “And what we ended up doing is … we would only invite certain people up (to jam), who we knew and trusted.”
Among those were bassist Chico Huff, saxophonist Jay Davidson and vocalist Jeannie Brooks, who will join the Crosstown trio at Ardmore Music Hall.
“Chico and Jay crossed the stage at Dobbs on occasional Tuesdays, but the Monday thing is where it really solidified our musical relationships because (they became) an extension of the trio,” said Smith.
“And then lo and behold who comes traipsing in one evening — also (who we) met at Dobbs the year before – Jeannie Brooks. Next thing you know, besides Greg singing maybe one of four songs and the other three being instrumentals, Jeannie (became) a semi-regular,” adds Smith. “It was so effortless, and so fun and so easy,” said Crawford. “There was something about that spirit with Greg, Chico, Wally, Jeannie and Jay.”
As for the challenge of not performing together for sometimes a few years and coming back together, Crawford said: “It’s like family or like old friends that you don’t see for a long time and you’re like bam! – you’re right back in the conversation, like no time has passed. It’s this thing that we come in and out of … and we’re in the same groove. It doesn’t seem like time has passed in terms of our connection to each other.”
As for the future, Smith knows that “We’ll see each other again. We will always exist as long as we’re able to, as long as we’re alive and kicking on the planet. We’re still always gonna get together.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Crosstown Traffic
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, April 11.
WHERE: Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore.
TICKETS: $12 in advance; $16 day of show. 21+ only.
INFO.: Call (610) 649-8389 or check www.ardmoremusichall.com.