It’s not every day that a band like Philadelphia’s Toy Soldiers comes along
Philadelphia troubadours Toy Soldiers, along with Quiet Life, came to the Columbus Theatre on June 8 to give the people of Providence some late-night entertainment. The intimate show took place upstairs at the Columbus Theatre, a small space that makes it feel like you’re watching bands perform in your living room.
The show kicked off with a set of songs from bluesman Mark Milloff of local group the Cannibal Ramblers. Backed by an impromptu band made up mostly of members of the other acts, Milloff sounded like a preacher possessed by the power of the blues. He hadn’t even met the other musicians before, but the set went very smoothly. “This song is gonna have a stop somewhere … we’ll figure it out,” he instructed at one point. The set became more like a sprawling jam session with the tunes fluidly blending together.
Next up was Quiet Life. The Pacific Northwest has exported a number of successful indie folk bands like Blind Pilot and Fleet Foxes, and Quiet Life seem right at home in this kind of company. Led by frontman Sean Spellman, the band is right at home playing rockabilly, up-tempo tunes (lead guitarist Robert Jenson is a fret board wizard), but the most powerful moments of the show came with more acoustic, straight-ahead folk tunes, including the showstopper “Shaky Hand.” Spellman commented at the surprisingly appealing atmosphere of the Columbus, formerly a pornographic movie theater.
Toy Soldiers took the stage after a brief intermission, and it looked like they were having a great time performing. They brought it back to 1971 with a powerful cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Early in the Morning” first performed by Louis Jordan. Their amped-up version of this mellow tune was exactly what you’d hope for from a band like Toy Soldiers. “Heart in a Mousetrap” explored classic country tropes (“you’ve got my heart in a mousetrap, you’re like a brick thrown at my head”) with tasteful background licks from guitarist Matt Kelly. “Tomorrow is Today” began with a slow, wistful intro then built into a salsa feel, with impeccable drumming from Domenic Billet. Frontman Ron Gallo’s voice is instantly recognizable and sounded like a kind of rock ’n’ roll crooning.
Toy soldiers released their excellent album The Maybe Boys in 2013, combining the energetic blues-rock of the Stones with the organ-laced sensitivity of The Band. Surprisingly, the band only played a few songs from the album during their hour-long set, which is probably a testament to their prolific songwriting ability.
One of the highlights of the show was experiencing the camaraderie between talented guys who clearly enjoy each other’s company; throughout each band’s set, various members of the other groups joined in onstage. Both drummers were playing together for most of the show, and Toy Soldiers bassist Bill McCloskey played with Quiet Life almost the entire set.
In the age of electronic music sensory overload, it’s great to see bands that can still take it back to their roots. These two acts with bright futures made staying out until after midnight on a Sunday night totally worth it.
Ron Gallo will be playing upstairs once again at the Columbus Theatre, along with songwriters Christopher Paul Stelling and Jonah Tolchin on June 27 at 8pm.