Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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Here We Are Now
-Patrick Rapa

The Hangman
James Lewes is documenting a very perishable part of the local rock scene.
-Patrick Rapa

Where They Were Then
From Studio to salon to saloon, old-heads recall the scene they can¹t exactly remember.
-A.D. Amorosi

Punk Calling
Diary of a man in a local band (or two) in the early 䢔s.
-179Frank Blank² Moriarty

Getting to the point
the bryn mawr club knows where it¹s going, and where it¹s been.
-Mary Armstrong

Those were the frickin¹ days
Rolling stone¹s david fricke remembers the main point
-Patrick Rapa

Deep Thoughts with The Low Road

Tearing Down The House DJ
The life, music, modeling, drugs, death and rebirth of Narayan.
-Sean O¹Neal

October 17-23, 2002

cover story

The Lowdown

antique road show: The Low Road make it a night at the Art Museum, circa 1991.
antique road show: The Low Road make it a night at the Art Museum, circa 1991.

Peaks, valleys and what finally put a fork in The Low Road.

In a studio in L.A., Mike Brenner puts the finishing touches on a steel guitar track here, a tweak on a note from his “sort-of” invention, the slide bass, there. Sounding “like a gothed-out cello,” it’s played lap-style with picks and a bar.

Brenner's doing scoring work with one of the Dust Brothers for the quirky ABC series Push, Nevada. It was unexpected and fortuitous, this TV job, luring Brenner away from accompanying Philly band Marah on a European tour. Still based in Philadelphia, he answers questions about his late, much-missed band The Low Road, while contemplating other West Coast opportunities.

The unexpected and the fortuitous are qualities on which Brenner thrived during the years of The Low Road. In songs at once melancholy and joyous, TLR galvanized the local music scene in the '90s with its proverbially "unclassifiable" and "indefinable" blend of poppy rock, folky blues and Celtic balladry. The band -- Mike Brenner, Rosie McNamara, Alan Hewitt, Palmer Yale and Mark Schreiber -- was roundly applauded for its earnest, but never trite, vocal and instrumental experimentation and, ultimately, its damn good pop songs. They braved the scene for seven years, recording three lo-fi tapes, two full-length, studio-produced CDs, The Devil's Pocket and Fidelity, and a magnificently complete retrospective disc called Demolition that still gets regular play on jukeboxes around town. They toured tirelessly, up and down the East Coast, over to the South by Southwest festival and usually with an impressive list of headlining acts: Los Lobos, Freedy Johnston, Ben Folds Five. They received glowing reviews everywhere from local publications in the towns they played, to features in the Inquirer, to a "best regional band" designation from Entertainment Weekly. They packed bars, coffee shops and festivals.

They got signed, dropped and still kept going -- for a little while. Then, slowly but surely, the threads started to pull. No definable moment, no angry implosion. Just an understanding that the time had come, a desire to finish at the top of their game. So it ended, gracefully and with appropriate fanfare, in a bittersweet Valentine's Day show at The North Star in 1997. The band, all dressed in red and black, played a fierce set of favorites, from their early tape tracks like "The Road to Cairo" to their more polished cuts like "Jealous Husbands" and "Majority Whip." And that was it.

Like every band, TLR is full of stories: good, bad, cynical and funny, from recording to touring to just being a band member. And post-Low Road life has meant different things to each of them. Cross-country moves, back-to-school endeavors, career changes, marriage, kids -- the things that happen to people in five years. And for most of the band, music still has its claws in them.

Perhaps the most visibly active has been Brenner. Immediately after TLR, he played with bluegrass-driven Y'All, and has since launched Slo-Mo as his slide-guitar solo project and played in the blues-rock outfit John Train (Schreiber's behind the kit in the latter two). His recent past includes touring extensively with local loudmouths Marah (to Europe and opening for Steve Earle and the Jayhawks), playing on Badly Drawn Boy's soundtrack for About a Boy, working with Steve Albini on Songs: Ohia's next release. And now, the recording out west, which Brenner says seems more promising by the day. "As I started getting better on the steel, the thought of doing solo/session stuff seemed more appealing because I felt my bandleader experience was very cool, no need to walk that same way again," says Brenner.

Rosie McNamara is now Rosie McNamara-Jones, and a new mom to boot. She arrived in Philly to attend Temple's music school, switched gears to business and has played in bands ever since. Since TLR, she's filled out Matt Pond PA's ethereal, breathy pop with her skilled violin work, both on stage and on disc (including this year's The Green Fury). "Matt's music is great for lush, orchestral-sounding string parts. I also found playing and composing arrangements in tandem with another string player, Jim Hostetter on cello, was a new challenge," McNamara-Jones says. She's supported local performance artist Martha McDonald in Fringe events and elsewhere, along with Hostetter. Currently, she plays with Rick Henderson's latest effort, The Wayward Wind, and will appear on its CD to come out next year, all while working full time as Comcast Original Programming's marketing manager.

Upright bass player and frequent songwriter Alan Hewitt, he of the ever-changing hair lengths, came to the band classically trained and the son of a Philadelphia Orchestra oboist. He appropriately brought a strange, individualistic streak, which led to haunting strains on songs like "Feather Boa" on The Devil's Pocket. Hewitt, too, could help write a sweet pop ditty like "Letter Never Sent" or a sad strain like "Daddy Loves Me" on the second, more experimental album, Fidelity. Hewitt seems content to let the past stay there, saying only that he's currently completing "an album, nay, a song cycle, if you will, on bedwetting" and trying to keep Lance Bass out of space (looks like he succeeded on that one).

Harmonica player Palmer Yale, in San Francisco since 1999, has worked for CDNow, has done editing work for television and film, including ESPN, and is currently a producer for a nightly technology news program recently picked up by San Fran's NBC affiliate. While not really involved with music anymore, he "plays around" on the harmonica and jams with friends on occasion. "It's funny. Most of the people I work with now are considerably younger than me. I guess you could say the seven years I spent in The Low Road led to me getting a late start in television production, but it was the most valuable and best seven years of my life. I wouldn't change a thing."

Drummer Mark Schreiber, a longtime fixture in the city's music scene, especially with The Darrows, still lives and works in the area after getting married, having a daughter and nabbing a computer systems degree. Besides doing tech support for a pharmaceutical provider to hospices and drumming for Slo-Mo and John Train, he plays in the band Wobbly and is a "go-to" drummer for local singer-songwriter Amber DeLaurentis. "Basically, I haven't left music, I've just left the music business," he says.

Schreiber's earliest memories of Low Road sessions are of drumming on a plastic bucket, drinking red wine and watching The Simpsons in McNamara-Jones' bedroom. At the time, around 1989, it was just Brenner, McNamara and himself. Soon after, Yale joined in (he and Brenner worked at KYW NewsRadio together) and Topher Horner of Go to Blazes came along for a bit. The first TLR recordings at Adam Lasus' Studio Red were "eerie," says Schreiber. "I couldn't believe how good it sounded. The tones were rich, the music was sparse, dynamic, loose, emotional, unforced." Eventually, Horner exited and Hewitt entered, leading Brenner to feel freer to switch gears and collaborate on different arrangements and more complicated songs.

They practiced longer and more frequently in the West Philly house Schreiber and Brenner shared. Shows were suddenly packed and enthusiastic, WXPN played the hell out of them and the local press ate them up (voted Best Local Band several times in CP's Reader's Choice Awards and received a Philly mag "Best of Philly" nod). And it was during this period, after being signed by Passenger Records (an offshoot of Caroline), and the label's release of The Devil's Pocket in 1994, that TLR got its most resounding, acclaimed recognition -- all the while playing nonstop at The Tin Angel, The Khyber, and release shows at Borders, Tower Records and Third St. Jazz and Rock.

Stylistically, the band segued effortlessly from acoustic folk pop to high-energy electrified rock to dark and experimental arrangements over the course of a show or album. Almost every member cites Yo La Tengo, specifically 1990's Fakebook, as a strong influence on the band's work, along with The Pixies, The Clash and Prince.

McNamara-Jones says the band went for a stripped-down, genre-hopping sound, "How loud could we go? How quiet immediately after that? What other sounds can we add? What other musical genres can we mimic? Screw it, let's just turn it all up and make noise! We were just having a lot of fun figuring it all out." Diversity won them fans in every possible category, but also lost them some much-needed stability in the market.

"We were this strange little acoustic act on a primarily indie/punk label, whose president signed us and then left," says Brenner. "Whatever. ŒMy label fucked me' stories bore me to no end." Still, it seemed to be the case that Passenger didn't know what to make of TLR, let alone know how to sell them. After the release of Fidelity in 1996, the label's support weakened under the burden of low sales and lukewarm to disappointing reviews. At the end of that year, Passenger let The Low Road go, almost to the band's relief. They decided to forge on (after all, the fans were still out there), but the energy slowed and a sense of imminence crept in.

"Ultimately, I don't think any of us were losing interest in the band," says McNamara-Jones. "But perhaps, becoming more interested in pursuing other aspects of our own lives -- musically or otherwise." TLR called it a day early in 1997, and the show at The North Star marked both an end and a beginning for all.

"I had been working on David Garza's debut for Atlantic. That day/night was, I'm sorry to say, a bit of a blur to me," says Hewitt. "By that time, I think, inside I had already said goodbye."

Schreiber keeps an archive of the band, not just with the usual fliers and press clips, but some little mementos and personal photos, including much-treasured pictures of Sinéad O'Connor washing dishes and playing Brenner's guitar at Sin-é Cafe in New York City, where TLR played many a Wednesday-night gig to welcoming crowds and with illustrious stage partners (on the Sinéad night, other performers included Allen Ginsberg and Marianne Faithfull). There's documentation of every upstate New York festival and picnic, pictures of the band outside the "Jambulance," the old hospital supply van and former Dead Milkmen touring vehicle, and shots from their gig doing National Public Radio's Mountain Stage.

So Los Lobos took them all over the Southwest and Barenaked Ladies invited them on the road, but hometown shows always grounded them as a Philly band: Clark Park festivals, Singer/Songwriter weekends, those New Year's Eve residencies at The Tin Angel (and they don't know when or where, but there's real talk of a reunion show). And clearly the Philly scene at the time is still alive in all their ears, as each recalls his or her favorite bands and moments. They all cry "Go to Blazes!" in an e-mail roar when asked about a most-missed band. The Wishniaks, Rolling Hayseeds, The Goats and Uptown Bones also made the lists. Yale says, "The Philly scene was very supportive. The bands were for the most part rooting for each other and there was cross-pollination."

Yale feels the band had "a true American experience." "I mean, we toured the country in a beat-up van, met a million characters, got to hang out in bars across the U.S., and played folk-blues-rock music using Œtraditional' instruments," he says.

Brenner is humbled by the still-fresh admiration for the band in the city. "I rarely go more than a month before someone brings the band up to me. People I don't know getting nostalgic about certain shows. It's very flattering, makes me very proud to have been a part of something that people remember in such good ways."

He continues, "I was really proud of what we did and how hard we worked at becoming a better band. I didn't really need to think a lot about trying to get another band going afterwards, because I knew I never could have that same evolution of a weird little band become more well known in the area. [And] could certainly never hope to play with better musicians who were as focused and gave as much of their time and lives as The Low Road folks."

"To me," says Schreiber, "we started small and ended big."

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