STORY BY FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
Ben Arnold. Joseph Parsons. Scott Bricklin. Tom Gillam. Matt Muir. All five musicians have been stalwarts in the Philadelphia area music scene for more than two decades. Each of them has a successful musical career and following on their own. Put them all together and you get a bona fide supergroup.
If you’re unfamiliar with US Rails, the band formed out of Sanctuary recording artists 4 Way Street, which featured Arnold, Parsons, Bricklin and Muir, along with Jim Boggia. Though 4 Way received a lot more acclaim in the U.S., US Rails – despite the band’s name – is known predominately in Europe. Thus this is a rare opportunity to catch the Americana/rock group that features great songwriting, expert musicianship and killer harmonies.
It is always difficult for band members with multiple projects to coordinate their schedules. Yet for US Rails the problem is compounded. Only Arnold and Muir still live in Philadelphia. Gillam lives in Austin, TX. Parsons lives in northern Germany. And Bricklin lives in Paris. Yet despite the logistical challenges it’s a priority for them to keep the band going.
“(We’re) a bunch of old friends getting together to play songs,” said Parsons via an e-mail interview while on tour, riding through the Alps from Italy to Germany. “It’s a blast and very different from all our other projects. Strangely, it’s almost like a vacation.”
“We’ve all been friends for a long time so it’s always a spiritual homecoming when we’re together,” added Bricklin in an e-mail interview. “And (it’s) a lot of fun!”
Because the band members have such a limited amount of time together, they have to make the most of it. This U.S. trip will include two shows. In addition to Ardmore Music Hall they will perform at World Café Live in Wilmington. They also plan to write and record during the two weeks that they’re together.
“When we all get together, we mostly work every day and night to get the most out of it,” said Bricklin.
The schedule may be grueling but it’s a labor of love – for the music and each other.
The band has released four albums since 2009 on Blue Rose Records, which is based in Germany. Arnold explains the direction they’re taking as they plan to begin recording their next album, which is tentatively scheduled for release late next year.
“We have been evolving the sound of the band… to be a little bit more cohesive and a little bit less reflective of each personality,” said Arnold in a phone interview. “It really comes down to the production more than the actual songwriting. The production has become much more collaborative. We’ve never worked with an independent producer; we’ve always been self-produced. And as we grow as a band I think we’ve been able to kind of integrate all of our production aesthetics into one thing rather than everybody having diverging opinions.”
Despite this new emphasis on the recording process, Arnold said “I think our strength is really in our live performance. It’s generally celebratory, a melodic and upbeat show… It’s a spirit-lifting kind of show. We enjoy being together so much that I think it’s reflected in the show.”
Up to this point US Rails has toured extensively in Europe with only occasional performances in the Philly area.
“I think wherever you are you have to find the people who are into what you do,” said Bricklin. “We just happen to be signed to a German label so it’s easier for us here in Europe.”
Arnold elaborates: “It’s infinitely more expensive and difficult to exist as a touring band (in the U.S.). We don’t have the label or radio support here that we do in Europe. (In Europe) they’re just naturally set up for a certain level of touring that is in large part subsidized by the government, which is very helpful. The government subsidizes the cultural arts to such a degree where that includes getting American rock bands over in clubs.
“We have a small but very solid fan base over there. The thing is, over there we’re able to replicate that fan base from town to town… I wish that we had the opportunity to grow (the band) more here in the United States.”
For now, let’s just be thankful that the band is back in Philly.
IF YOU GO
What: US Rails with the John Byrne Band and the Brian LaPann Trio
Where: Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore.
When: Saturday, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7.
Ages: 21+ only
Tickets: $15 in advance at www.ardmoremusic.com; $18 day of show.