On Stage: John Byrne comes ‘home’ to Philly

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor

John Byrne

Singer/songwriter John Byrne is a native of Dublin, Ireland who first worked in the United States when he was in college and then moved to this country more than 20 years ago.

Now a resident of the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, Byrne will have a hometown show on November 1 at World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com) to celebrate the release of his new album, “A Shiver in the Sky.”

Recorded at Spice House Sound in Philadelphia and produced by long-time collaborator Andy Keenan, the new album shows his band of multi-instrumentalists vibrantly executing 10 new originals. Strings, horns and guitars escort Byrne’s vocals through a set of songs about living and pushing forward through negative times.

“I have six musicians who I use all the time for big shows,” said Byrne, during a phone interview Thursday afternoon from his Fishtown home. “When we hit the road, it’s usually acoustic three- or four-piece. It’s the same line-up without bass and drums. Everyone in the band lives in Philly.

“The band has been around for 10 years. We recorded our first album, ‘After the Wake,’ in 2009 and it was released in 2010.”

“After the Wake” was released to great critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic in 2010. With influences ranging from The Chieftains to Planxty to Bob Dylan, Byrne expands upon the musical and lyrical traditions of his native and adopted homes. The John Byrne Band followed its debut disc with “Celtic Folk” in 2013 and “The Immigrant and the Orphan” in 2015.

“When the first album came out, I was working as a teacher in Norristown,” said Byrne. “I was teaching at an alternative school called Lincoln Center. When the album did so well, the side project became a main project and I quit teaching.

“One of the songs on the new album – ‘Time Ain’t Changed a Thing in this Town’ – was inspired by what we’ve seen while touring. We tour a lot in the Midwest and come across towns who have had the life sucked out of them. Norristown is a town like that.

“A lot of the album is about facing trauma. The original title was ‘What If We Don’t Die Young’ but we decided to change it. The album is about – how do we push on? It’s about understanding that things will happen to you and, if you push through them, they will pass.”

The album offers inspiration to people who are dealing with adversity.

According to Byrne, “Things will happen to you and they can be immensely painful, but they won’t be there forever. If you don’t let them break you, there will be a new version of yourself that emerges and has learned the skills to live with this pain.

“There are cautionary tales, songs about dealing with addiction, about immigration, about relationships of all kinds, about facing prejudice, about leaving things behind. They all ultimately carry a similar message — that living carries with it the possibility of balancing out regret or mistakes that you’ve made with a future that contains something brighter. ‘The Shiver in the Sky’ is the past. It’s the remnants of trauma. It never fully leaves us, but it fades with time.”

The album evolved with songs that were uplifting.

“When I looked at what I had written, that’s what the songs were talking about,” said Byrne, a former soccer player in school who is a big fan of Dublin’s Bohemian F.C., a team that is currently third in the Premier Division of the League of Ireland. “When I looked back at the album, I saw that it was all positive.

“We’ll be playing all the songs from ‘The Shiver in the Sky’ except the last song on the album which was an acoustic track. We’ll play the new songs, some earlier stuff and a few covers.”

Video link for the John Byrne Band – https://youtu.be/3teMyc8QdKk.

The show at the World Café Live, which has Citizens Band Radio and Jamison Celtic Rock as openers, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16.

Other upcoming shows at the venue are Superchunk on November 5 and Brendan James on November 6.

Michael Franti

On November 1, there will be a great twin-bill at the Franklin Music Hall (421 North Seventh Street, Philadelphia, https://www.bowerypresents.com/greater-philly/shows/franklin-music-hall) featuring Michael Franti & Spearhead as the headliner and Devon Gilfillian as the opening act.

Franti is touring in support of his most recent album, “Stay Human, Vol. II.”

“The album came out in January,” said Franti, during a phone interview Tuesday morning from Nashville, where he was working in the studio.

“I started recording it six months before. I had been on the road making a film for the last five years. I was starting to score the instrumentals for the film.

The film, which is called “Stay Human,” explores the connection between people around the globe and meets extraordinary humans who inspire him to overcome cynicism with optimism.

During these turbulent times, the feeling of hopelessness is an epidemic. In a quest to find a path to stay human in the bizarre world we live in today, Franti takes us on an experiential journey through his songs and stories of people who have chosen to overcome cynicism with optimism and hope.

Franti shares the tales of Robin Lim, a midwife who opened a birthing clinic in the aftermath of a devastating typhoon in the Philippines; Steve and Hope Dezember, a young couple whose love carries them through Steve’s battle with ALS; Arief Rabik, an environmental scientist in Bali who perfected a method to make industrial and household products with bamboo in an effort to curb deforestation; and Sive Mazinyo and Busisiwwe Vazi, who help inspire their community of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, through music and education.

“The film is about how I rediscovered my optimism in a world where there is a constant battle between cynicism and optimism,” said Franti. “I met people who were doing very good things.

“It’s the opposite of people who get on their keyboards with a sense of anonymity and feel it’s O.K. to put people in blast. If they did the same thing in person, they’d probably get punched in the nose. People get so hurt with the conversations that are going on today. It’s important to show respect.”

Franti became a globetrotter when making the “Stay Human” film.

“I travelled around the world and always came across interesting people,” said Franti, who owns a yoga retreat hotel in Bali. “In the past, I always wished I had a camera to capture people and their stories. The segment in the Philippines was the first I captured for the film.”

On one of his previous tours, Franti had to cancel some shows – including one at the Queen in Wilmington – because of an injury.

“While performing, I tore my meniscus and required surgery,” said Franti. “I was onstage and dancing gently. I was leaning back and forth and heard a pop. After that, I couldn’t move my knee anymore. I tore up my left knee, had surgery and was on crutches for six weeks.

“I did a week of shows sitting on a stool. It was brutal having to sit because I’m used to jumping around on stage and running into the audience. Sitting still was a big challenge. But I learned a few things like how to do more storytelling.

“I didn’t have any problems for a long time after I had the surgery.  But I’ve had two surgeries in the last four years. Now, I’m eating well, training every day and cutting out alcohol.”

Franti approaches all his projects with enthusiasm and sincerity — especially his concerts.

“When I’m putting together a set list for a show, I want to get together a collection of songs that represent who I am,” said Franti. “I’m very passionate about the world and everything I do.

“I don’t care about the money, the amount of tickets purchased or the amount of records sold. I think about the goal as a feeling — how I want to walk out after the experience. I want the audience to walk out feeling inspired.”

Video link for Michael Franti — https://youtu.be/YfxeiePMmQs.

For Gilfillian, the show in Philly will be a happy homecoming.

Devon Gilfillian

Gilfillian grew up in suburban Philadelphia – in Morton in Delaware County. After graduating from Springfield High School, he got his degree from West Chester University.

“I majored in psychology at West Chester University,” said Gilfillian, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Chicago.

“Being a psych major at WCU got me here. It helped me as a songwriter. It helped me study people.

“In high school, I had a band called Black Sheep. When I was at West Chester, I did solo gigs and acoustic shows.

“I graduated from WCU in 2013. After that, I spent a year working for a non-profit – AmeriCorps’ ‘Rebuilding Together.’ I got accepted to work at a program here in Nashville.”

“Rebuilding Together” is dedicated to national service. Every year, “Rebuilding Together’ engages more than 80 AmeriCorps members to make an impact on homeowners and in communities across the country. They develop and apply valuable professional skills, earn money for education, and are active citizens in the local community.

“They pay you $850 a month and food stamps,” said Gilfillian. “You work your butt off for a good cause. When IO was dome, I used my grant money to pay back student loans.”

A few years ago, Gilfillian left the Delaware Valley and relocated to Nashville.

“When I first got to Nashville, I played guitar and sang for random bands,” said Gilfillian. “One of them was Black Cat Crossing, a Delta Blues cover band.

“After I got done with AmeriCorps, I started working at City Winery (a restaurant/winery barrel room/entertainment venue in Nashville). I met my drummer Jonathan Smalt there.

“Jonathan is also my manager and his friend Taylor Thompson is now my bass player. My band, which I’ve had together for 14 months, also includes Carson Cody on keyboards.

Gilfillian’s music meshes together gospel-blues and southern soul. Both styles are upfront on his self-titled debut EP which is powered by groove, guitar, and the powerful punch of Gilfillian’s voice.

His songs and vocals show the influence of artists such as Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ray Charles but also display the young artist’s originality.

“My dad is a musician – a wedding singer and a percussionist,” said Gilfillian. “I’ve been singing since I was in elementary school – Motown, old soul, Ray Charles. My dad introduced me to it.

“What put the nail in the coffin was when I picked up electric guitar when I was 14. I was listening to ‘Under the Bridge’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and my dad said – that guy sounds like Jimi Hendrix.

“I didn’t know Jimi Hendrix at all. So, my dad got me the ‘Jimi Hendrix Greatest Hits’ CD. Listening to the music Jimi Hendix made changed everything.”

His five-song debut EP of originals, which came out in 2017, was a showcase for Gilfillian’s abundant talents as a singer, songwriter and kickass guitarist.

“I recorded the EP in February 2016 at Fat Back Studio in East Nashville. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Staples Singers as well as Jimi and Otis. We recorded the EP over a course of three days.”

Since then, Gilfillian has released several singles including “Get Out and Get It,” and “Even Though It Hurts.”

“I have a new single coming out November 7,” said Gilfillian. “Next will be an album that should come out in early January. It’s all done and ready to rock. We’ve been playing most of the new songs in our live shows and it’s wild.”

Video link for Devon Gilfillian — https://youtu.be/rsLjfRPj080

The show at Franklin Music Hall, which has Michael Franti & Spearhead as the headliner and Devon Gilfillian as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.

Other upcoming shows at the venue are X Ambassadors on November 2 and U Up? Podcast Live on November 6.

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