Being an amateur band in Philadelphia can lead to a vicious cycle.
It’s difficult to go from playing in your friend’s basement to playing in bars around the city. If the owners have never heard of your band, they’re probably going to ignore you. And if they ignore you, no one is ever going to listen to your band, and you’ll never get booked anywhere.
Being an indie band from Temple probably doesn’t say much, either. The campus is oversaturated with groups that think they’re the next best thing in Philadelphia’s music scene, which is already filled with indie acts like Man Man and Dr. Dog.
Emerging from the sea of hipsters and metal heads who dominate this scene is Toy Soldiers, a blues-rock duo that hails from South Philly. Armed with only a guitar and a drum set, senior communications major Ron Gallo and his best friend Mike Baurer have spent the past year bringing an energetic show to clubs and bars throughout the city.
Although Toy Soldiers is often compared to The Black Keys and The White Stripes, there’s a tension in Gallo’s vocals and urgency in Baurer’s drumming that makes their sound one-of-a-kind. As Gallo yells into the microphone and stumbles about on stage, Baurer sits back, hitting his drums as if he’s trying to break them.
“It was kind of like a spontaneous creation. We decided to just work with what we had because we didn’t expect anything of it,” Gallo said. “It turned out, we got a good response.”
Crafting a sound that matches its interests in soul and blues, Toy Soldiers is looking backward.
“We’re both really appreciative of the beginning of [rock and roll],” Gallo said. “Everything that happened before plays a major role in what we do.”
In songs like “Myself: Repeated Blues” and “Wrecking Ball,” the blues influence is obvious. “Throw Me Down,” a fan favorite, sounds like something that could only come from the South.
The band’s energy is impossible to contain, and the songs often build into loud, distorted guitar leads. Gallo’s voice gets rougher and louder, as Baurer drums harder and harder.
The band’s musical focus has helped it rise above the struggles facing most Philly bands. Not only has Toy Soldiers played most of the city’s popular venues, including the Khyber and North Star Bar, but it recently caught the attention of the Fire’s promoter and booking agent Derek Dorsey.
Dorsey has seen countless bands cross the stage at the Fire, including a number of local acts and big names like Maroon 5 and John Legend.
“After seeing hundreds and hundreds of bands, it’s really difficult for a band to stand out,” Dorsey said.
In fact, he booked Toy Soldiers at least twice before the night it took the stage and hooked Dorsey.
It was Gallo’s stage presence that first grabbed him.
“You almost hate to sound industry, but [Gallo] kind of has that ‘it’ factor,” Dorsey said. “He’s got that thing like, ‘Wow, I can see this kid on the cover of Rolling Stone.’”
The next step is getting its name out there.
“[Dorsey is] there to help us get known outside of Philadelphia,” Baurer said.
Dorsey wants to make the duo a household name in Philadelphia and take it out beyond the city limits.
Within weeks of starting work with the band, Dorsey had Toy Soldiers playing at the 2008 CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival in New York City.
“For a band playing for the first time, they had a handful of labels that came out to see them and really dug them,” Dorsey said.
Toy Soldiers opened for Peter and the Wolf Saturday at the Fire, and the band will return there to play with Illinois on Jan 16.
With a gritty, original sound and an in-your-face live show, Toy Soldiers is an entertaining show for most – and a sweaty show for everyone.
Garrett Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.