Picture a band. There’s a guitarist, of course. A drummer and a bassist. Maybe a second guitarist. Oh, and a singer. At least four, maybe five musicians, crammed on a stage, loud and rocking out. Yeah, that’s a band.
But what if you took away everything but two of those people?
What you’d have left is what Craig Woods refers as “the duo.” It’s the term he uses for the two-piece bands he and his bandmate Peter Helmis have been championing for a decade, by way of the annual Two Piece Fest.
The groundbreaking Philly event — which takes over the basement of the First Unitarian Church in Rittenhouse on Saturday with 22 bands across two stages ($10 tickets here) — was one of the first of its kind. Many in the festival scene credit it with starting a something of a global movement. Cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Miami have all hosted Two Piece Fests. Outside the U.S., there’s one coming up in Australia (Woods and Helmis were invited), and just last week organizers in Spain hosted the third edition of what they call the Two Shots Fest. Promoters in Wellington, New Zealand, modeled their Two Piece Fest on the original after reaching out to the Philly guys for tips.
“Oh, and someone in Kabul asked our permission to do a Two Piece Fest there,” Woods added, noting he wasn’t sure if it ever actually came to fruition.
The draw, according to Woods, comes from the “creative energy” that happens when two people collaborate to create music. “The live setup of a duo is the most interesting type of band you can see.”
Back in 2008, when the first Two Piece Fest was coming together, this was far from obvious. Woods and Helmis had trouble even finding 22 different duos to participate. But once they did, and put on the show at Circle of Hope in South Philly, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive (even though the show was silenced for a few hours due to a neighbor’s noise complaint).
“It was a great response,” Helmis said. He recalled guests and band members standing in line to pose on a tandem bicycle (get it? a two-seater?) that they had set up for pics. “After [the first show], we said, ‘Let’s definitely do that again!’”
Some of the bands that participate became couplets by default, after other members dropped off, but many started with the idea of keeping things at two and two alone.
Take the “no wave” noise band Ursula, whose members recently moved here from Boston. Per guitarist and singer Caity, “We never wanted anybody else to be in our band.” Drummer Sonam agreed. “When we started, I couldn’t imagine being in a band with anybody but Caity,” she said. “We can read each other’s minds. It’s special and it’s unspoken between us that it’s always just gonna be us two.”
Philly queer punk band HIRS, which has played at the festival for nine years, has at times expanded to include a whole range of artists and musicians. But for founding member JP, the duo is the key: “Who really needs that third wheel?”
Like many of the groups at the fest, Ursula’s music is loud, brash, and in your face. The band sounds like it might have a third or even fourth member even though it doesn’t, something Woods suggested is born out of a “level of creativity and intimacy” between the two musicians. Trying to sound larger is one tactic a duo can take, or it can go for a minimal, stripped down approach. When that happens, “the music comes across like an exposed view into their creative juices,” said Woods.
No matter which angle a duo is going for, at the heart, neither of the members should be overpowering the other, Helmis said.
The Afterglows, who will close out Two Piece Fest X on Saturday, exemplify that mantra. A collaboration between Michael Cantor of The Goodbye Party and Sam Cook-Parrott from Radiator Hospital, it is one of the most traditional duos at the festival — two guitarists playing together and harmonizing vocals. Think Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel or Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins. Cantor and Cook-Parrott also cite Seattle-based grindcore legends Iron Lung, who played Two Piece Fest Midwest in 2014.
The lineup for Two Piece Fest is purposely eclectic, covering all genres of music.
“We want it to be available for anyone to play but we [also] curate it to keep it super diverse,” Helmis said. The event is a very grassroots operation — Helmis screenprints all the posters by hand — but booking groups has become a lot easier in the age of Bandcamp and Facebook. What used to be the difficult process of finding 22 two-person bands to participate has now turned into the even harder one of going through close to 150 applications and figuring out what makes for a perfect lineup.
Still, the founders are as excited as ever about “the duo” and their festival that celebrates it.
“We keep going with this thing every year because it is so damn fun to both plan and attend,” said Woods.
“The energy is perfect,” added Helmis. “Everybody is happy to be there, and the bands are so awesome. It never gets boring. I wish more shows were like that.”