Kevin Riordan: New Jersey gatherings get to roots of acoustic music

Playing a tune together are South Jersey Acoustic Roots Music Society founders Drew Podolski (left) and Steve Kessler.
Playing a tune together are South Jersey Acoustic Roots Music Society founders Drew Podolski (left) and Steve Kessler. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: September 08, 2011

Over sushi, Drew Podolski and Steve Kessler cooked up a concept.

The young lawyers imagined a place where they could share the sort of music that plays second fiddle in the highly amplified soundtrack of popular culture.

Their 2009 lunch helped launch the South Jersey Acoustic Roots Music Society, whose unplugged gatherings at the Medford Arts Center are connecting a community and making a joyful noise.

"Roots music historically has been passed on through social gatherings," says Podolski, 34, a guitarist from Medford who practices law in Princeton.

"People used to play on their porches," says Kessler, 33, of Collingswood, who works for a Delaware law firm and plays mandolin, banjo, and guitar.

The society, he says, is "a 'giant porch' where people can come play."

The porch is actually a room inside the arts center on Main Street, where society members hold monthly jams and regularly host visiting performers.

Monday's meeting will feature a Nashville "fast banjo" diva who goes by the name Mean Mary. And Saturday, the society will hold its first major public event - a concert by classically trained guitarist Beppe Gambetta - at the Friends Meeting House in Medford.

The term roots music is an umbrella more than a definition. It's inclusive of Doc Watson and Patti Griffin, Robert Johnson and Bill Monroe, and even Dolly Parton's bluegrass excursions.

A variety of ethnic musical styles, particularly Celtic and blues, is clearly audible (if not dominant) in what is now generally referred to as American roots music.

"We don't want to limit the music" played at the meetings, Podolski says. "As long as it's traditional and acoustic."

Turns out there's a significant audience in the area. About 50 people have become members, and jam sessions have attracted listeners and players from hipster havens such as Northern Liberties.

"Our membership runs the gamut. We have some hippies . . . and we have lots of dulcimer players," Podolski says.

He and Kessler began jamming at South Jersey coffee houses in 2003, after they met at the Rutgers School of Law in Camden. They perform locally with Podolski's wife, Monica, as a vocalist in a trio called Branin Road.

But can't we stay home and get in touch with our acoustic roots? This is the era of satellite and online radio, and YouTube.

"With all that, and the economy, it takes a lot to get people off their butts and out of the house," concedes guitarist Jimmy Heffernan, 58.

A professional musician for nearly 40 years, he has played with country superstar Brad Paisley and performs locally with bluegrass artists Stone Mountain Road, among others.

The society provides a home for what had long been a "fragmented" community of players and listeners, the Haddon Heights resident says. "There were pockets of people here and there, with nowhere to hear the music." The society also provides an opportunity for amateur players to study professionals, and for everyone to learn more about the instruments.

After all, there's only so much musical education that listening from the comfort of one's couch can provide.

"There's a huge difference between playing a CD of a guitarist playing bottleneck blues and hearing it from 10 feet away," Podolski says.

"Our performances are all acoustic. There are no speakers, no barriers between the sound of the instrument and the audience.

"The way it's meant to be heard."


Kevin Riordan:

To see a video of Drew Podolski and Steve Kessler playing their music, go to www.philly.com/whiskey


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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