It's a Friday night at the Fire, a North Philly bar and music venue. The place is at capacity - people lined up outside the door shiver in the cold, awaiting a nod from the bouncer. Like most nights of the week, the Fire is hosting a lineup of several bands to play hour-long sets. Up next is Don McCloskey, a singer-songwriter who has become a local favorite and one of the club's regular performers. Armed with a guitar and a four-person band, his set begins. The crowd's energetic response to his enthusiastic stage presence makes clear why so many have come out in the cold to see McCloskey.
McCloskey, a 30-year-old musician originally from the Philadelphia area, is known for his eclectic, genre-crossing style. His songs vary from folksy love ballads to comedic hip-hop with a country twist and from politically charged rock songs to fresh funk numbers. Despite the fact that he now lives in Brooklyn, McCloskey has managed to carve a niche for himself in the Philly scene, regularly playing shows in Northern Liberties, Old City and even at Smoke's this past December (where he'll play again this coming February). As a part of the up-and-coming Antifolk movement - a loosely defined, experimental brand of folk-inspired music whose big names include Beck, Regina Spektor and Kimya Dawson (of Juno fame) - McCloskey is poised for a breakthrough in his musical career.
At 10 p.m. one early December night in Northern Liberties, McCloskey (wearing a fitted black tee shirt that reads "!#@*$," tattered jeans and old school Adidas Superstars) meets with the band at the studio of Tom Spiker, a musician, producer and the group's guitarist. Spiker sits inside the studio at his production desk, guitar in hand. Also present are young drummer Matt Scarano, who is behind his set, and brothers Geoff and George Hazelrigg, who are on bass and keys respectively.
The five guys casually sip Yuenglings as music and chatter mingle in the small space. Ideas leap spontaneously from one subject to the next, as they discuss the likes of Phish, Tom Petty, Annie Lennox, Quincy Jones, Kanye West and Lancelot Link, the secret agent monkey from the '70s. One of them begins a riff. One by one, the others catch on and within seconds they're all rocking on the same page.
The band preps for two upcoming shows, one at Smoke's and the other a holiday show at Silk City, a fluorescently lit diner and nightclub just blocks away from Spiker's place. McCloskey sits on a white wooden barstool with his worn-out guitar as they rehearse several of their usual numbers. He belts the lyrics so loudly and quickly that his face is red. His feet tap restlessly on the second rung of the stool.
After they've run through the majority of the set, McCloskey pitches his ideas for the Silk City gig. "Okay, first of all, we're wearing atrocious Christmas sweaters. Like green. And matching," he says. The other members laugh and nod in agreement. McCloskey then explains his vision for what he calls "The Christmas Mash-Up." It will be a cover of Run DMC's 1987 holiday hit "Christmas in Hollis," set to a medley of Beatles instrumentals.
As they practice McCloskey's arrangement, they become sidetracked by the musical possibilities - an old Christmas standard morphs into the NFL theme song, which in turn gives way to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and Heart's "Barracuda." Though McCloskey's original ideas for the "Christmas Mash-Up" transformed into a stream-of-consciousness jam, he lets the band members do their thing. "It took me a really long time to choose the people I wanted to work with," he said. "But it was worth it. I believe in these guys, and I trust their instincts."
Later that week, McCloskey explains his excitement about this new moment in his career. "The band brings a lot of experience, a lot of texture and new sonic worlds to explore," he says. "I used to play solo acoustic, and I had the same songs, technically. But the band brings out the same spirit that's in the solo show in their own way and collectively, on a much bigger scale."
Over the past year, McCloskey has carefully collected this group of musicians to join him. He began playing with Spiker last May, through whom he met each of the other members. Scarano, a recent graduate of Temple University's Boyer College of Music and the last to join the ensemble, started playing with the band in July. Each member is a professional musician working on several other ongoing projects, but is especially excited about being a part of the group.
The band connects both on a musical and personal level, according to McCloskey. "It's great to have people that are on the same wavelength musically. But also, humor is such a great thing to have in common," he says. "It's very rare that you can find people that have it outside of your circle of friends or the people you grew up with or your family."
Three days later, they perform the bizarre Christmas medley at Smoke's. During the instrumental breakdown, McCloskey freestyles about the commercial mayhem of the Christmas season, soliciting rowdy responses from the crowd of dancers in front of him. "It's Christmas time. Where my Christians at? It's also Hanukkah time - where's my Jews at? How about my Druids? Festivus for the rest of us! Well, we're all gonna celebrate this together. Because we all know that Christmas isn't really about religion. It's about one thing and one thing only: survival," he shouts as "Eye of the Tiger" sounds in the background.
This energy and creativity is typical of McCloskey's live performances. He says he hopes "that everyone feels an emotional and spiritual release" during his shows. "That's what I feel when I perform. I want to create absolute anarchy within the confines of the secure safe walls of a venue, absolute orgasmic chaos."
Lach, a one-named stalwart of New York's Antifolk scene and a mentor of sorts, says that what sets McCloskey apart from his contemporaries is "his sense of humor mixed with an innate intelligence and a drive to entertain. Don captures a crowd with his funny upbeat tunes and sharp-witted improvisational stage banter and then rivets them with ballads that are lyrically poetic."
McCloskey describes Antifolk as "a community of musicians who are inspired by the folk genre, but whose music is nontraditional." The musical movement dates to the early 1980s, when Lach was rejected from New York folk clubs because his punk-infused folk tunes were too edgy. As a result, he opened his own club, and shortly thereafter (at the same time that the Greenwich Village club Folk City held their annual New York Folk Festival) he founded his own "Antifolk Festival." Since then, the movement has made a home for itself at Lach's Sidewalk Café in the East Village, and has given birth to such artists as Beck, Spektor, Nellie McKay, Brook Pridemore and countless others. The movement has begun to spread, with Antifolk-inspired communities springing up in Boston, Philadelphia and even London.
McCloskey established himself in this community of East Village musicians in 2003. After graduating from Fordham University with a degree in English, McCloskey was exploring the New York music scene when he stumbled upon The Sidewalk Café. After his first performance was an instant hit, he began playing there regularly. To this day, he is known for getting on stage with his worn-out guitar, a harmonica strapped to his neck and occasionally, a banjo.
"I didn't attend Don's first show at Sidewalk, but the feedback was incredible so I moved him up to a slightly better night in the week," says Lach. He says he eventually gave him a weekend slot, and though he was skeptical of McCloskey's jamming at first, he soon became a fan. "I realized I had a huge grin on my face and was totally digging the show," he says. "Ah, I get it, I thought."
McCloskey's shows are known for their call-and-response songs and occasional crowd-surfing, says Scarano. "So much of what makes Don's shows is audience interaction," he said at Smoke's, over a buzz of drunken frat-boy chatter and dance music. "He is really gifted at drawing the audience in, compared with other musicians who are really talented, but are in their own minds when they are playing. Don's not like that. He's out there."
Loyal fans from the East Village make up the majority of the audience at McCloskey's New York shows. He also has substantial recognition closer to home, in the Philadelphia area. After several years of gigging at various Philly venues, he has made a name for himself and attracted a large following at the Grape Street Pub in Manayunk, the Tin Angel in Old City and The Fire in Northern Liberties, where he will be playing on February 15. His crowd-pleasing performances won him two Philly Music Awards, one for "Best Male Entertainer" and the other for "Best Acoustic Act," both in 2004, as well as a song spotlighted on the FX sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
McCloskey, otherwise known as "Big D," hails from Bristol, PA, a small town situated just north of Philly where his family roots run deep. His hometown has become the muse for several of his songs and the namesake of his first album, Bombs Over Bristol.
"When I sit down and write a song, I don't really know why or where it's coming from," he says. "But looking back on it after the recording I can see that I have used a lot of the imagery and names of the town I grew up in and the people in that town."
His hometown plays a prominent role in his music because "when you move out of your hometown and you're in a city like New York and you travel a lot, the faces are always changing, and there's a lot more disconnection on a daily basis." As a result, McCloskey has come to value the connection he feels with Bristol.
Though many of McCloskey's fans are from the Philadelphia area and can thus connect with his hometown references, his music has proven relevant to a wider audience. "The reason is that it's not really about a place," McCloskey explains. "If you aren't from there, then it's just a name of a town or a name of a person. It's home, you know; this idea of home, where you know everyone and everyone knows you." The particulars of his songs are personal, but his ideas are universal.
"Son of it All," a song from McCloskey's second album, Northern Liberties, is filled with particularities of place. It begins, "I was born son of a McCloskey, son of a Moore," and goes on to tell the story of his parents, who struggled before building a stable and supportive family. The soothing track, backed by rhythm guitar and a simple drumbeat, is instrumentally folk. The album is named for the neighborhood in Northeast Philly where McCloskey lived while recording it.
Like many artists today, McCloskey recorded both of his albums under his own independent label, Lemon Hill Records, named for a popular hangout spot during his high school years at St. Joe's Preparatory School in Philadelphia. He is optimistic about the reach of his music within the current landscape of independent record labels, which he likens to the wild wild West. "Its good for guys like me and the band who are just out there doing it on our own," he says. "It's a good time for us."
Though he seems content with "doing it on his own," McCloskey has been getting some significant attention from major record labels recently. If his success continues, he could follow in the steps of his Antifolk predecessors who were signed to major labels. Even on the verge of making it big, it seems that for McCloskey, there is nothing like the simple joys of a six-string, a Yuengling and his hometown.