By Dutch Godshalk
On stage, Rob Grote looked like he was about to start speaking in tongues. His face balled up like a fist, the front man of The Districts not so much sang as snarled harmoniously as he stomped circles around the microphone, his plaid shirt ripped at the elbow, his hair a churning mass of curls.
Backstage, however, Grote was the complete opposite. He was soft spoken and polite. His unruly hair tucked beneath a red knit cap, the teenage bandleader seemed slightly smaller in person.
The other members of The Districts, a band hailing from Litiz, Pa., were the same way, friendly but somewhat reticent; sitting in the green room of the Sellersville Theater on April 2, it was hard to imagine these guys were going to kick up a storm of swampy, electric rock in about 40 minutes.
The Sellersville show was the penultimate stop on the band’s first national tour, two months packed with festival dates and positive write ups in Rolling Stone and countless other magazines and websites (they play in Philadelphia area on May 15). Not too shabby considering they’ve yet to release their first major label album (their untitled full-length record with Mississippi label Fat Possum will drop later this year).
“It’s definitely been intimidating,” drummer Braden Lawrence said of the band’s rapidly growing popularity. “It definitely feels like huge steps, but it also feels kind of natural.”
They might be on the young side — all members are between 18 and 20 years old — but they’ve logged more hours and moved through as many steps of evolution together as some of the most accomplished working bands.
“We’ve been together for five years,” guitarist Marc Larson explains, “so it doesn’t feel like (our success) came out of nowhere. I think you can definitely connect the dots between where we were and what we’ve become. It’s definitely evolved. When we first started, we did a lot of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin covers, and then it evolved into writing our first original music, which was very similar to the stuff we were covering — and then it just took its way.”
The influence of artists like Hendrix and Zeppelin — and even Neil Young — is pervasive in The Districts’ performances, in their raw, controlled chaos and in their apparent foundation in electric blues (a particularly bluesy end to “Telephone” stands out here). There’s a charming warts-and-all quality to their sets; they whip up a playful mess — and, as Grote flails around center stage, one feels the flaws are as essential as the rehearsed notes.
“We try to be as diverse as possible and put as much as we can in there,” Larson said of their eclectic set choices — a set that included a cutting rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” that would have turned the Chairman of the Board’s blue eyes bloodshot.
At this point in the interview, the band’s manager, Marley McNamara, burst into the green room, her arms filled with the bags of a long travel, and the conversation halted while the guys exploded with elation; “I missed you guys,” she said as the musicians lined up to each greet her individually.
“They’re like my little brothers,” McNamara said later on, sitting at the bar in The Washington House, a dimly lit restaurant next to the theater; with a laugh, she added, “and sometimes they’re like sons.”
McNamara discovered the band years ago at a Beta Hi Fi Emerging Musical Festival held at World Café Live. She said she knew instantly that the band had great potential, and that all they needed was someone in their corner. Getting to watch their wave of success slowly build over the last couple years has been “very surreal,” she said.
Some of this success has come in the form of booking a slew of 2014 festivals — including SXSW, Lollapalooza, Forecastle Festival and Ottawa Blues Fest — but it also manifests itself in the opportunity to pair up with bands like Dr. Dog, who The Districts played with for the first time on Feb. 1, and will join up with again for dates this summer.
“(Dr. Dog) sold out the Electric Factory,” that night, Larson said, “so we got to play to, like, 3,000 people. I think that’s most people we’ve ever stood in front of.”
“That’s probably my favorite show we did,” Lawrence added.
The Dr. Dog connection in part came from the two bands’ shared roots in Philadelphia, Grote said. And it’s that home-turf aspect that makes playing a stage like The Electric Factory especially gratifying.
“That’s my favorite part about playing Philly shows,” the singer remarked of performing at a venue he’s frequented as an audience member. “It’s like, ‘We saw so-and-so here …” It’s that palpable awe of rocking on sacred ground – and doing it well. It seems there’s nothing like it.
Granted, Sellersville Theater is not exactly a Philly venue, but The Districts managed to achieve something often too challenging for the hall’s typical acts: they got the audience out of their seats, on their feet and crowding the aisles as though shoulder to shoulder at a club like Johnny Brenda’s.
The band opened the Sellersville show with “Rocking Chair” — from their five-song eponymous EP, released in January to satiate fans while the band continues recording their Fat Possum record — and moved through a set of crowd favorites from their self-released album Telephone, including songs like “Funeral Beds,” “Long Distance” and “Lyla.”
They recorded Telephone in high school, putting in about three or four hours every day after classes wrapped up, slowly piecing a full album together over about half a year.
“We borrowed a lot of our parent’s money” to record the album, Larson said. “And we paid them back very slowly.”
They also tossed some newer songs into the Sellersville set, tempering the transitions with the occasional moody, undulant instrument break, like the one that led into “Long Distance” (see video).
It was a memorable set, showcasing known gems and demonstrating the band’s ability to stretch their legs and feel around inside their own sound, clawing at their instruments. Besides, it was worth the price of admission just to see Grote’s stage presence; he’s like a man possessed.
“I got whiplash playing that one in Chicago,” the singer remarked following an as-yet-unknown song from the forthcoming album.
Off stage, The Districts might still be on the timid side; on stage, however, they ignite.
IF YOU GO
The Districts will be playing First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, May 15. Doors at 7:30 p.m.; show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit www.r5productions.com.
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.