IF YOU GO
What: Muscle Tough Album Release Party featuring Minka
When: Concert is at 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 15; doors open at 8.
Where: Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., Philadelphia, PA
Info.: visit www.johnnybrendas.com or call 215-739-9684
It’s time to get tough! Muscle Tough, the power trio comprised of Philly musicians Ross Bellenoit (guitar), Joe Baldacci (drums) and Jonathan Colman (bass), will release their first full-length CD at Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, Dec. 15. The event will include 2 full sets by the band.
Muscle Tough started with a concept by Bellenoit, who was looking for an outlet to perform improvisational music.
“I came to the realization that I’d been spending so much of my time… devoted to other people’s music and I didn’t have an improvisational outlet for playing guitar,” said Bellenoit in a telephone interview from his home in Philadelphia.
Bellenoit took a leap of faith by booking a date at Time on May 31, 2014, when all he had was the band name Muscle Tough.
Bellenoit recalls that he even had a chant in mind, which has become one of the band’s trademarks.
“Back when I was the original MC of the band I would be, like, ‘When I say get tough you say Muscle Tough. Get Tough!’… And people would yell back ‘Muscle Tough!,’ but sometimes it sounds like a bunch of people yelling ‘Mazel Tov!,’ which I think is just really funny.”
After Bellenoit booked the date he needed to find band members.
“Joe the drummer – I’d been playing with him on and off for years. He would play in my band if I did solo gigs (and) I played a little bit in the band Early Ape, so we knew each other really well and I knew I wanted to do something with him.
“And the bass player, John Colman, I had just met maybe six months before that. We met and played this one gig. It was a radio taping for Kwesi K… at World Cafe, at the studio there. I remember walking in there and setting up and playing with John for the first time and being like, ‘Who is this incredible, incredibly smiling, positive musician who also has a history of Phish loving?,’ which we kind of gathered right away.”
With Baldacci and Colman on board, it was time to figure out what to play.
“I wrote a few quick originals for that first gig of just some random ideas that we jammed on and we also learned a couple of covers.”
The majority of the music is instrumental, though they might invite a guest on stage to sing a cover. It encompasses rock, jazz, funk and psychedelia.
“I just wanted to play music that made people dance and have fun but with weird sounds. I wanted to make weird sounds and be totally self-indulgent and, sort of, push my own boundaries of caring about things like taste,” explained Bellenoit.
All three band members are in multiple musical projects. But they made a commitment to keep Muscle Tough going with occasional gigs at Time.
“The more and more we played together, the more we realized that people were reacting so positively to the music and so we started venturing into playing actual bills and clubs and getting on shows in different venues and, and it grew into us being a real band.”
Bellenoit remarked at the irony of the success of this project compared to other musical endeavors of his.
“I’ve done so many projects, and I still do my own singer-songwriter stuff. That’s a very big creative outlet for me, but it’s much more precious and… I care a lot about how it’s perceived. Then I start this band where I don’t care at all and it’s had the most positive response out of all the projects I’ve had. It’s just really funny how you really can’t control how people are gonna react, what people are gonna like about whatever music you’re putting out.”
As the project progressed Muscle Tough became less Bellenoit’s side project and more of a collaborative effort with Baldacci and Colman. Bellenoit considers his band members equals.
“I’d say everybody contributes pretty equally as far as writing. I probably bring in the most songs but... their songs are very strong and we end up playing them a lot. Particularly Joe’s compositions are probably more intricate on the composed side of things. He’s a great writer and so there’s a lot of meat to his tunes.”
As far as the improvisational aspects of the music, Bellenoit said: “We talk about general attitude but we don’t talk about (going into a specific type) of thing. It’s more unspoken.”
“Magical Achievements” was recorded over a period of several months, where the band members would go into Turtle Studios, where Bellenoit works, about one day per month. A large collection of songs that the band amassed were whittled down to 12 tracks that made it onto the album.
As for the release show, Bellenoit said: “Minka’s gonna open and then we’re gonna play the material from the record, which is all original. Then the third set is the ‘party set’ and we’re gonna play all our bizarre takes of covers that we do. It’s weird versions of the Bangles and Madonna and XTC and Beyonce. We’re gonna do some crazy ’90s boy band medley that we’re gonna put together for the show. And it’s all just funky with weird sounds. But they’re songs that people recognize, too.”
There’s also the possibility of some surprises, for example a guest vocalist who just might happen to be there. Regardless, it will be a night of exciting music. Don’t forget to bring your dancing shoes.