• Space for Sound: A Retrospective on the Look Around Festival

    It was one of the last days of August: a day that seemed to siphon the last of the warmth from summer’s end. The sky was bright blue, speckled with cumulonimbus clouds. Hundreds of people gathered in the grass outside of The Moose Lodge, unfolding lawn chairs and sitting under the shade of a large oak tree. As they talked and ate food from nearby vendors, some of West Chester’s best local bands took the stage, speakers booming from noon until 3am. The air was full with breeze, laughter, and loud music. “I wanted a place to play.” Nikki is head organizer for Look Around Fest and one half of onyx&honey., a local funk duo. Like many other West Chester musicians, she has a need for space- specifically, designated venues and devoted communities. While West Chester does have a number of bars with live music elements, it seems the days of three-band bills and big name headliners have passed. “I know my music’s not dead, why aren’t we getting an opportunity?” It’s a good question.

    Many musical hotspots of the 2010s have faded away; The Note, Vincent’s, and Sprout Music Collective are gone. Covid marked the end of Sprout, the only true music venue West Chester had to offer. The Note, run by Don Moore (who now runs The Social) and Bam Margera(!), had hosted big names like Young the Giant, The Get Up Kids, Wheatus, and The Dead Milkmen, and its predecessor Rex’s had the likes of George Thoroughgood and Dr. Dog come onstage. What happened? It may have had something to do with the Liquor Control Department.

    “Before 2010, things seemed to be very vibrant and varied.” Rob, the other half of onyx&honey, is a veteran in the local music scene and had a lot to say about how things have changed. In the past, “you could go out at any point during the week and see four or five, six bands at different spots, paying a minimal cover, and not having to stay in one place all night. Musicians would be playing across the street from each other, that knew each other; we’d be meeting out in the street and jamming or going into each other’s gigs between each other’s sets, and it just seemed like a lot of that going on for a long period of time. Also very welcoming to the younger musicians… it was an overall good vibe back then.”

    Then trouble arrived. “The LCD cruised through West Chester and kinda put a quash on a lot of places. They were rolling in the place like the Gestapo… I was at a gig where the LCD showed up in like trench coats and stuff and made the bands stop playing and then issued a list of stuff to the manager of the bar that they needed to fix.” These places used to feature all kinds of music: EDM raves at Sprout, death metal at The Note, and jazz and blues jams at Vincent’s. The places were packed, and business was good. “They made the bars hang up things from their windows… and started really trying to crack down on decibel levels and things like that. It just got to be more and more trouble for places to have live music, it seemed like.” The effects of that time are felt to this day. Nowadays, West Chester doesn’t have a dedicated music venue, and big names don’t come through like they used to. That can be very damaging to a growing music community.

    But, there is some hope. The Moose Lodge is a bastion of local music, featuring lots of original music in many different styles. Its divey, vintage aesthetic makes it feel welcoming and homey. According to Rob, who also books shows at the Moose, “there’s no stylistic boundary at all in place for what we book here, musically. Nobody involved in the board has any qualms against us trying any style of music or whatever kind of crowd. You end up getting a lot of original music.” Fairman’s skate shop has a little more edge to it; they throw basement shows frequently, featuring anything from scuzzy DIY rock to hip-hop/electronic beat sets. The Brickette Lounge is a honky tonk with a full stage and cowboy aesthetics, giving it that nostalgic bluesy feel. Artillery Brewing Company, Spence Café and The Social are good places for more intimate performances, with a built-in audience to boot. On our part, WCHE is planning a concert series for this fall, showcasing the best of the local music scene. (Psst! Hey! If you or a friend would like to perform at one of these shows, DM us on Instagram! We’re always looking for new acts!)

    West Chester local music is still live. Look Around is a shining example. “It was just a win for everybody,” Nikki said of Look Around. It was just like a boiling over of this renaissance— for real, because that’s kind of what it feels like.” It feels like we need a renaissance to get things back to where they were. And we may be arriving at one. Bands like Precious Little Life, The Quill Pen Gallery, Tea Head, Cniderian, Flavor Wave, and many more are releasing incredible music on all platforms. “What’s cool now is it seems like, after Covid and quarantine, style is not as much of an issue in general, like with covers versus originals. It used to be very closed off; one place would be known for having one kind of thing happening but now, people seem more open to different things, which is really good for an artistic community. I think it’s trending in a really good direction, honestly.” If you want to be a part of this community, go check out some of these local acts today. Get out to a show soon. And tune in to WCHE 95.3 FM to stay plugged in.