“It was more like a resistance against electricity,” said local musician Erik Peterson. This is how Petersen approached folk music in his early days of playing it.
Now, after several U.S. tours and a tour of Europe, the genre-defying music he calls “Mischief Brew” has been pressed into two full-length records, several EPs and is a household name in Philly’s rich underground music scene.The 29-year-old Philadelphia resident has been making music since his high school days.
His early projects included a punk band called The Orphans, which performed consistently around the West Chester area.
After “fizzling out” around 2000, Peterson temporarily abandoned his amp and picked up an acoustic guitar. “The idea was to strip it down to the bare essentials, and see what happens,” Peterson reminisced. After developing a solid repertoire of heartfelt, honest folk songs rooted in defiant
punk rock tradition, Peterson was quickly playing shows all over West Philadelphia, where he eventually moved with his wife Denise.
Within a few years time, local punks and other miscreants, weirdos and wing nuts were dancing, swaying and singing along together to his spirited acoustic anthems.
“He’s an incredible showman. I’ll never forget how he jumped up on the ledge in that living room and started wailing on his acoustic guitar, doing a fabulous job of it,” said Donna Greenberg, the 56-year-old mother of one of Peterson’s fans.
“There’s a genuine sense of community he encourages at his shows; it’s like he really has affection and respect for his audience, which is less of an audience than a big group of friends all singing along. He has a tremendous spirit.” Simultaneous with his “stripped-down” acoustic work, Peterson put together a band of fellow punks to recapture the glory of plugged-in punk that an acoustic guitar simply cannot recall.
However, the band’s tremendous
scope of influence spawned a sound that could not be pigeonholed as punk rock.
“I like to go to thrift stores, and find all kinds of records. Anything, be it Yugoslavian folk music, whatever. There’s value in anything,” said Peterson, describing his influences.
“I get inspired by all of these different sounds, but keep it grounded it punk rock.”
The music creates some very powerful imagery. A listener stumbles into a dingy dive bar with poor lighting in a part of town he’s never been, and is quickly surrounded by gypsies, thieves, pirates and pimps.
Immediately drunk off cheap whiskey, a night of madness ensues, leaving the poor out-of-towner with a spinning, heavy head and the faint memory of a faded circus tent.
This memorable night comes around quite often in the City of Brotherly Love, and leaves a regular group of carnival-folk grinning ear-to-ear hungry for more.
Regardless of whether the show is a full-band “carnivalesque” spectacle or rudimentary folk performance without a microphone, Peterson can always count on a batch of drunkards to provide a chorus of voices often overwhelming his own. Usually,
this gathering forms in smelly, cramped basements, kitchens and living rooms, but has been found at more organized venues, such as the LAVA Zone on Lancaster Avenue and the First Unitarian Church in Center City.
“Singing – no, screaming along at an Erik show is like clockwork. It will definitely happen. Really fun music mixed with really colorful, storytelling lyrics makes singing along part of the process, like it’s natural,” said Joe Connelly, a sophomore political science major. The stories told in Peterson’s songs are just as important to the flavor of Mischief Brew as the unforgettable music.
Anyone who has a heart and a sense of humor can find meaning and charm in the tales Peterson has spun. His stories are “packed with imagery and characters,” Peterson said. Dark and lonesome city rooftops, small towns where neighbors are friends and heartless factories piled high with artifacts of weary labor are just some of the scenes painted in his songs.
Carpenters, stone workers, boycotted musicians, gypsies, punks and all kinds of drunks are just a few of the ingredients in the recipe for Mischief Brew.
Although he said his music has planted a seed of “old time defiance and spirit” in rebels around the globe, Peterson has found a certain element of purity to be increasingly difficult to hold on to.”I kind of miss the purity of being 16 and wanting to play punk rock,” he said. “If we made patches, we gave them away. As long as people were dancing, we didn’t care.”
Regardless of where his music has taken him or where it will take him, a unique sense of anticipation will always exist for fans counting down the moments before his show. After all, there is certainly something to be said for acoustic music that doesn’t have the audience somber and cross legged, but rather merrily singing along, standing up and pumping fists to a spiced brew of revelry and rejoice.
Julian Root can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.