STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
The circus is coming to town. The Slambovian Circus of Dreams returns to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia for their 10th annual pre–New Year’s Eve celebration. And that means anything can happen.
The band, also known as The Grand Slambovians, has amassed a loyal following since their formation in the late ’90s. Originally called The Ancestors, bandmates Joziah Longo (lead vocals and songwriter), Tink Lloyd (accordion, cello, flute, theremin) and Sharkey McEwen (guitar, mandolin) met at art school in New York City and played open mics. They recorded an album and began getting label interest – an independent band’s dream come true. Or not.
“When the labels started chasing us we just ran away,” said Longo in a phone interview from his home in Sleepy Hollow, New York. “We started doing open mics as Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. People really loved the band at these open mics and it was just a matter of months before we were asked to play bigger festivals.
“It just grew and grew,” continued Longo. “We were doing 3 or 4 tours a year of the U.K. They loved us so much over there. We were doing major festivals all throughout the United States.”
Longo is originally from South Philly. And though he left the city at age 16, he began playing music professionally and getting a following as early as age 12 with his band The Atomic Reaction. He is rooted in many of the traditions here. And his South Philly persona emerges when he returns.
Lloyd, his wife, said “When we go to Philly he even talks differently at that show. It is a different Joziah. So if you want to see another side of Joziah or some of the skeletons in the closet, that World Cafe show bears it all.”
The concept of Slambovia also has its roots here.
“People from South Philly… are really linguists and they’re always coining phrases and saying crazy descriptions for things,” explained Longo. “And the word ‘Slambovian’ for me was something even before the band existed. If something was really cool or awe-inspiring I used to say ‘that is Slambovian.’ So it’s got to do with that Philly way of expressing things.”
Longo added: “People really feel when they come to the shows – they really feel like they’re in Slambovia. It’s like that Brigadoon magic place that appears where anything can happen if you believe in it.”
It has certainly been a magical ride for the band and their loyal followers. Despite the lack of backing from a record label, the band members have been able to support themselves completely through music. And Longo credits their fans for going above and beyond in their allegiance.
“The fans find out what we need and get it for us,” said Longo. “The fans have given us stuff to keep us on the road because they feel the spirit of what it is that we’re doing. It’s amazing how fans have come through… (they’ve) kept us going through any kind of (difficult) time and it allowed us to do all we’ve been able to do. We’re very grateful that it’s so tribal like that.”
Another example of the fans’ interest and enthusiasm became what is now a tradition at their shows. And it has its origins in the Philadelphia Mummers, a tradition which Longo feels an affinity with.
“We do a song called ‘Alice in Space’ at the end of our show,” explained Longo. “My mother used to say that it sounded like a Mummers tune.”
After stating that at concerts, their fans researched the Mummers to learn what Longo was referencing.
“People started coming (to our shows) with decorated umbrellas, with these parasols. We instigated it by saying something but it’s just something that happened. The fans built it. Somehow it stimulated their creativity. They come to shows and they’re trying to think ‘what can they give us?’ and we’re thinking ‘what can we give them?’ and so the shows become this immersive, joyful, magic thing. It’s very cool to us.”
It truly was a magical sight at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival when, as “Alice in Space” began, a group of people young and old carrying lighted parasols emerged and paraded through the crowd.
The annual show in Philadelphia is special to Longo because he gets to see friends and family. He says that people he hasn’t seen in years, from as far back as grade school, have contacted him and come to the shows. It is also an opportunity to recap the year.
“Philly’s kind of like the report. We’ll have some new stuff. It’ll have (songs from) the Halloween Ball. It’ll have some stuff that we did at the festivals. It’ll have some stuff that we did at (the Christmas shows) and it’ll have some New Year’s stuff. We usually try to do an overview of the whole Slambovian year and bring it back to the tribe to report ‘here’s what we’ve been up to,’” said Longo.
The Slambovian Circus of Dreams is one big, extended family. But everyone is welcome to join the party. It’s never too late to discover Slambovia.