Inside the Random Tea Room and Curiosities Shop in Northern Liberties, nestled between couch cushions and air scented richly with spiced chocolate, one can hear the opening of Pandora’s Box. Hailing from across the United States, fresh off world tours, packing unusual homemade instruments, compositions, and embodied improvisations yet to be heard, countless musicians make a temporary home here.
Their audience is a motley collection of passersby, tarot readers, lovers of free improv, and boutique tea aficionados. At the center of it is their host, Florida man Leo Suarez. Whether in the shop’s cozy front room or at the altar of the back patio’s half-demolished chapel, patrons and performers settle into the evening with one goal in mind: rippin' it.
An example of one Leo’s best bills: One cool summer night featured Cilla Vee hanging from an exposed metal rod sticking out the chapel with Jack Wright’s metallic baritone sax howling and thunking. The energy of unpredictability was palpable. But who is Leo Suarez? How did he even come to this position?
The man behind aromatic sonicity
From touring extensively in punk, noise, and experimental bands (including one that did off-the-wall versions of Disney songs), Suarez knows just how badly reciprocity, financial support, and self-expression are needed. To him, these values are necessary not only in the music scene but in the whole of society.
Suarez sees the touring experience as essential to become a successful musician and to grow one’s horizons both geographically and musically. It may seem odd for such a tiny venue to bring in better talent than the corporate boondoggles we call venues and universities.
But Suarez’s musical philosophy and generosity to his fellow tourers is that reason. He makes it clear you are free to be yourself, to put on new and experimental works, to explore music intimately. This reputation and selflessness are what bring his patrons back and make him a sought-after sideman for spectrally inclined improvisers, including Madam Data (ooloi, smth savant) and Dan Blacksburg (Pew Fellow and Avant Klezmer Superstar).
To celebrate the release of his album of solo percussion, Feliciano, Suarez is hosting two concerts at the Random Tea Room. The first, on February 7, features one of the best bassists of our time, Luke Stewart of the activist-infused free-jazz band Irreversible Entanglements, whose punklike bass playing leaves many mouths and souls agape. Stewart will be playing a trio with Atlanta-based multi-instrumentalist Majid Araim and Suarez himself.
The second, on February 15, is a potpourri of strange sounds. Data and Suarez open with their quiet, harsh noises, and the rubato clockwork reminiscent of Everglades nights. Following them is TJ Borden and Nola Ranallo on cello and voice.
But what of the tea?
If you want to come to these shows, be sure to get there early, as the comfiest seats fill up fast. For optimum enjoyment, take the time to carefully select your pot of tea and consult with your tea tender. As far as my personal favorites, The extremely rich Vegan Mexican Hot Chocolate, spiced with vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, and other flavors, is a must-try. Get the medium-sized cup and you won’t regret it. For a more mind-altering experience, I would recommend Kratom, a sort of anti-caffeine that leaves the mind mellow and open to new sounds. The opportunity to match taste to sound is one of the most notable things about these concerts. Philadelphia should be proud to have such a place.
What, When, Where:
Leo Suarez performs on Friday, February 7, and again on Saturday, February 15, at Random Tea Room and Curiosities Shop, 713 North 4th St., Philadelphia. Both performances start at 7pm.