[This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Radius Magazine.]
As a boy in Cranston, RI, David Sweeny often played with a Fisher Price radio with a built-in blue microphone. “I spent hours listening to it, singing through the mic, sweating and performing for myself,” he recalls.
And when he was seven years old, Sweeny sought some light revenge on a neighbor boy who would often pick on the would-be star. After another taunting, Sweeny grabbed a screwdriver and chased him. “I fake threw to the left, but then he cut right as I threw the screwdriver that way. It caught him in the temple. I ran home and hid under my bed for days,” he adds, with a laugh, a tinge of embarrassment still resonant in his voice: “You really can’t take back things you did when you were young.”
The deed may be done, but the little boy with the blue microphone still seeks salvation. When he transforms into Philadelphia’s own Johnny Showcase, he fronts a full-fledged funk band and perform his penance by giving a heartfelt rendition of Screwdriver (I’m Sorry Michael), the leadoff track from his new EP, Mystic Ticket Part One: The Pump Fake.“It was great to get that off my chest and sort of get the audience on my side,” Sweeny says.
He may be sorry, but it’s almost surprising that Showcase, his outrageous leisure-suit-clad, owl-medallion-and-dark-sunglasses-wearing alter ego, would feel the same way. “We’re both emotional, but I’m a little more kind,” Sweeny explains, encapsulating his dueling personalities. “I have a certain shyness to me where Johnny is much-more brash.” Sweeny’s stage persona, is, essentially the grown-up version of the boy with the blue microphone. “I call him my ‘soul clown,’” he explains. “He’s the opportunity to act like that little kid we all were at one point.”
Oh, but the music this clown makes. Love is the Message, Johnny Showcase’s first release, hit the streets in 2011 and was produced by Henry Hirsch, whose resume includes working with Lenny Kravitz and Madonna. The funk that oozes from the record seems almost too genuine in its amalgamation of Prince, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. The rhythm section grooves like it’s 1974.The guitar has just the right amount of wah-wah, and the backup singers hit every note, every mark.
His latest offering, self-produced and the first installment of a trilogy, features new songs and remixes of older tunes all with a heavier reliance on keyboards and other electronic flourishes. The music sounds as authentic as ever and the lyrics reveal an absolute tour-de-farce.
On the song Sensual Parts 1 and 2, which recently released an accompanying video release, Showcase explains to the object of his affection that they must be sensual but not sexual, because he’s married. “Of course we can touch, but we can’t do all that much,” he assures. And on Shalaman, he sings of disappointment when famed director M. Night Shyamalan won’t give him a bit part in his latest film.
Onstage, the absurdity is turned up to 11.The band performs as the Lefty Lucy Cabaret with a lineup that includes two female backup singers known collectively as the Truth, and Rumi Kitchen, Showcase’s “spiritual advisor” who looks like a refugee from a Bee-Gees album cover. The two cavort around the stage as the Truth execute perfectly choreographed, albeit outlandish, dance moves and the band works overtime in the background to keep the music at a fever pitch.
“I called it a cabaret because I wasn’t quite sure how else to describe it,” Sweeny admits. “If I label us comedy, then the music would take second chair. Sure, we dress ridiculously, and the characters are humorous. But it’s because we’re funny people. But the music is actually the most important part of it all.”
The Showcase character has his roots in the funk and jazz Sweeny was exposed to hanging around the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston while he was unhappily studying communications at a nearby school. “I’d show up there [Berklee] around midnight, channeling Andy Kauffman and Steve Martin, and a little bit of Prince,” he recalls.
When Sweeny’s sister invited him to spend the summer in Philadelphia in 2000, he fell in love with the city and never returned to New England. He fleshed out Johnny Showcase while working as a server at World Café Live, when members of a cabaret act performing there asked if he had any characters or monologues he’d like to contribute. “Johnny Showcase became the opener; we’d find a way to interrupt the main act,” Sweeny says.“At the time, I wasn’t writing yet. We’d do Lionel Richie covers, songs like that.”
But Showcase’s world quickly grew, and, by the time Sweeny left World Café, Showcase and the Lefty Lucy Cabaret were already steadily performing around the city. On some nights, the music shares the spotlight with more of a narrative-driven production. Auxiliary characters like Bonnie Showcase, the leader’s ex-wife, occasionally show up. At one show, he was “wed” to his new wife, Martha Graham Cracker. During Purr. Pull. Reign, the ensemble’s Prince tribute and a full-fledged theatrical effort, the band was served with a cease-and-desist order onstage when they couldn’t obtain the rights to the music.
“It’s tough sometimes to balance the music, the comedy and the theater aspect,” Sweeny says. “Some performances are just a big show. But other nights it’s a dance party, where we just play the songs.” But whatever the setting or venue calls for, he knows when it’s working: “People are dancing, laughing and singing along. Those are the most joyful expressions the human body can make.”
And as more and more people laugh, dance and sing, Sweeny looks to bring his act to more far-flung locales.“The city [Philadelphia] is a great breeding ground for do-it-yourself music and art, but it’s kind of closed off,” he explains. “Something that’s famous in Philly tends to stay in Philly. My favorite way to play is when there are people who haven’t seen us before and don’t know if we’re serious or not. We can really just take over the audience that way. They’re silly songs, but when they’re performed with conviction, they make people happy. I hear people tell me they can’t get them out of their heads. We’re lucky to be able to do that.”
Not bad for a little kid with a blue microphone.