Billy Joe Murphy has the perfect style for downtown club Divano. With his lush, rhythmic guitar playing and ethereal voice, his music seems both as light and as heavy as smoke while he's playing a mix of originals and lovely covers such as 'Kashmir' and 'Wild Horses.'
His weekly gigs at Divano, the bar above the restaurant Prima, draw an interesting clientele. There are the folks, like local musician Troy Pierce, who go up there just to see him. Then there are the pure bar-goers, like the gang of women who were having a semi-raucous passion party, seemingly oblivious to Mr. Murphy's presence.
So does he ever, um, feel like . . . "background music?" He finishes the sentence with a smile. "I know what I'm doing at Divano. I know my role. The benefit for me is to get those few people who go, 'Oh, god, I loved it. Thanks a lot.' "
But while Mr. Murphy has his solo gigs, he also has his band, Yesterday's Love Song, which is playing at the Soapbox tonight in an opening role for regional rockabilly band Cigar Store Indians. His band's calling card is a self-titled album – it gets some airplay on local radio station The Penguin (WUIN 106.7 FM) – that Mr. Murphy and his brother Trip (guitar), local musical legend Seth Moody (bass, organ) and Matt Barbour (drums) recorded in late 2003 at Woodstock, N.Y.'s Bearville Studios. The famed studios have hosted the likes of Bob Dylan and the Band (who christened the place), as well as two of Mr. Murphy's idols, the band Ours ('Distorted Lullabies') and Jeff Buckley ('Grace').
One of the best songs on Mr. Murphy's album is 'My Place,' a rhythm-heavy rock ballad that has Mr. Murphy's voice climbing into a soaring falsetto over his trancy guitar playing while Mr. Moody's keyboard work dances in the background. "Looks like there's nothing else to say," he sings, "so let's just go our own ways."
The album, he says, "came from a loss, a love loss, someone I was with for a long time – six and half years. You know, you come home and you find your stuff gone the day you graduate from college."
The album's coolest song title? 'You're Talking in My Sleep Again,' which shows off Mr. Murphy's vocal range. Rather than falsetto, his voice dips down into the rumbly lower registers, a style he sang in while playing with grunge bands in high school.
The Philadelphia native went to Cabrini College, then moved to Wilmington, which was (and is) home to his brother Trip, of local band Black Sox fame, about a year and a half ago. (Mr. Murphy also has a twin sister and two older sisters).
Mr. Murphy calls his brother "a huge influence. I used to be 6 years old, huddled outside his room when he was supposed to be baby-sitting us, and he's blaring 'Kashmir' and I thought it was Satan coming through the house. And then he'd play 'Dark Side of the Moon,' and I thought our house was being taken over. But it got me turned on to the right stuff."
After tonight's gig at the Soapbox with his full band (where he'll debut three songs influenced by Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie), Mr. Murphy will head up north to play a handful of solo gigs in Philadelphia and New York.
In March, Mr. Murphy will head out to L.A. to play a showcase for some management companies. "It's a little nerve-racking," he says of the impending showcase. "You hope you're doing the right thing. But as long as you do what you love, you can't go, 'Oh, I should've done it that way,' 'cause then it wouldn't be me."
To listen to Mr. Murphy's music, go to his Web site, www.billyjoemurphy.com. If you miss him tonight, catch him Feb. 3 solo at Divano or Feb. 4 at his band's favorite haunt, The Whiskey.
– John Staton