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Toy Soldiers: Ron Gallo And The Texas Tornado Match.

September 1, 2011

Text by Chris Diehl. Top image by G.W. Miller III.

Toy Soldiers began as a joke.

“We would get drunk and go in to Ron’s old basement on Juniper Street and just write silly stupid songs,” says former member Mike Baurer. “Ron (Gallo) was in a band at the time, so we didn’t actually set out to do much with our joke songs. One day we actually wrote a song very randomly called, ‘I Die Blues.’ BAM! Toy Soldiers was born. “

Gallo was working at Black and Brew coffeehouse in South Philly at the time. A customer told him he looked like the kid in a painting by Antonio Mancini, Boy with Toy Soldiers, which is housed at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

The name stuck.

“There’s no real significance, Gallo says. “We just liked the sound of the title.”

Since then, Gallo and his band of revelers have conspired to create a rambunctious brand of soulful, Americana music that brings crowds to their feet. They play with a level of maturity, craftsmanship and retro-style that is surprising and impressive from such a crew of young musicians. Their music carries the weight of the world, yet you can’t help swaying, bouncing and singing along when you hear it.

By 2007, the band grew to include twelve players, including the dynamic Kate Foust matching Gallo’s vocals. The band employed everything from strings to brass to percussion to create a large, thumping sound.

Their first album, Whisper Down the Lane, features the hit, “Throw Me Down.” The track opens with slow and subtle drumming that evolves into a loud and passionate cacophony, with Gallo wailing like a high-pitched Delta bluesman (the song won an Independent Music Award in the blues category this year).

“Managing twelve as a number is impossible,” Gallo recalls. “Those things naturally fall apart. It’s like having a girlfriend with the give and take. The twelve-man band naturally crumbled.”

After what Gallo claims was a disastrous tour in 2010, it was time for a change. Toy Soldiers needed to downsize. Later that year, a new iteration of the band was introduced: Gallo on guitar and performing vocals, Dominic Billet on drums, Matt Kelly on guitar, Bill McCloskey on bass and Luke Leidy on keys.

Gallo is the initial powerhouse behind the songwriting.

“I’m crazy about the creative process of writing songs,” says Gallo. “Say someone says something in casual conversation, or you’re walking down the street and you see something that catches your attention, or bigger things like a loss or gain, or an intense feeling or happening, I like to take those things and make something out of them that is relatively permanent. It’s like preserving the things in life that could otherwise go unnoticed.”

He takes those ideas to the rest of the band, who then lend their creativity.

“A lot of it still revolves around Ron’s songs and the almost formulated ideas he brings into rehearsals,” says Billet, the drummer. “Then we throw our minds into the mix, have a Texas tornado match and see who comes out victorious. If not, we totally just space out and jam on riffs for weeks at a time.”

Kelly says that everyone gets their 2 cents in while arranging songs.

“That makes each song worth at least 10 cents,” he says.

Toy Soldiers have played nearly everywhere in Philadelphia, from Connie’s Ric Rac to Festival Pier.

“It’s a lively show,” Gallo says. “We don’t want a wall between us and the audience. When we play it is like a big collaborative celebration. We want the audience invested in the show.”

His favorite place to play in Philadelphia?

“Downstairs at the World Cafe,” he says. “The sound there is the best around. Johnny Brenda’s is our fun venue. We’re always excited to play there. The Fire is like our second home.”

They’ve toured up and down the East Coast, spending an extensive amount of time down South.

“People down in the South love it,” Gallo says. “That kind of music is rooted there.”

Along the way, Toy Soldiers has played alongside countless Philly bands, developing a close relationship with many

“The rock/folk/blues scene in Philadelphia is booming,” says Billet. “Those who come out to hang at these shows always seem to have a good time.”

Last spring, the band dropped their six-song EP, Get Through The Time. Gallo explains that the EP reflects on the time after the difficult and painful break-up of the original 12-member Toy Soldiers.

“It’s the result of being broken down, cracked open and then rebuilt again,” he says.

Gallo put a lot of heart and soul into the lyrics. On the chorus of the first song, “Laughing Pain,” Gallo sings: “I yearn for the day when I look back and laugh at my pain.”

“Well, now I’m laughing and when I wrote the song and most of the EP songs, I clearly wasn’t,” recalls Gallo.

Toy Soldiers has never been about making it big or breaking even. For Gallo, it has always been about seeing new places, new people and doing what they love.

The band is in the early stages of creating a label, tentatively called Backrider Records. The plan is to build a community that supports each other. Gallo says they hope to launch by the end of the year or in early 2012.

“It will be a collection of services that we provide for a very strict selection of bands and artists who we feel passionate about,” says Gallo. “It’s built on the ideas of community, making noise in a group rather than as a sole voice.”

Toy Soldiers will play on Saturday as part of WHYY’s Connections Festival. The event is free at Penn’s Landing. They’ll also play at the Ukie Club on 9/25 as part of the Philly FM Fest. For discounted tickets all four days’ worth of Philly FM Fest events, click here.

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