While America's alt-rock scene lumbered through its wild '90s - the period of Beck's Odelay, the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication, Soundgarden's Superunknown, and Ice-T's Body Count - a nice Philly band, holed up at Manayunk's Grape Street Pub and Old City's Tin Angel, moved tiny mountains with a mellow brand of pop: June Rich.
Twenty years after its first album, and 17 years since the band broke up, June Rich has reunited, re-releasing its debut disc with a new song ("Who I Am") added, and playing Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday.
The band is led by two talented vocalists and lyricists: Vanida Gail (who takes the lower range) and Jackie Murphy (higher). They're abetted by a well-regarded musical crew: drummer Ronny Crawford, bassist Garry Lee, and guitarist Allen James.
June Rich fueled a quiet storm around their country-blues sound in the 1990s. Aided by radio support from WXPN-FM, their albums (1995's eponymous effort and 1997's Rain) hit and their shows were packed. Their fever-pitched Philly pop moment was comparable to that of the Hooters in the 1980s and, maybe, the War on Drugs now: adoration from fans, media, and radio, all at once.
"We met at a party in Philly, started singing together, and it just clicked," says Gail of her 1993 meeting with Murphy. Both were bartenders at the time, with many friends in the restaurant biz happy to come out and support them wherever they played. After a writing stint in Crested Butte, Colo., Gail and Murphy returned and joined up with James, Lee, and Crawford.
"We didn't really have a formula to our sound," Murphy says. "We just wanted to sound good vocally and write songs that were relatable and fun to sing along with."
"We also didn't want to just sing harmonies," Gail says, "because we knew that was done before."
"Because of the difference in our voices, we focused on singing songs together-yet-separately, but at the same time, in harmony," Murphy says.
Early hits "Goodnight" and "Sweetthang" show June Rich's way of getting listeners to hear two voices without knowing who is taking the lead and who is backing. "That's one of reasons we named the band June Rich," Gail says. "A single name that didn't belong to either of us - which created confusion, which we liked."
"I think taking their rhythmic, acoustic-driven sound and blending it with our rock and blues-based approach created this unique vibe, made it more soulful and complex than most singer/songwriter stuff that was happening then," says Lee, then part of Manayunk's music, art, and open-mic scenes. He met Murphy and Gail in 1994 and enlisted playing pals James and Crawford, both studio guys indigenous to South Street's J. C. Dobbs. He credits guitarist James, who "found the right chord voicings to compliment the girls' open guitar tunings, then wrote his own melodic guitar lines to enhance their melodies."
Adult-contemporary radio airplay and instant indie-label popularity followed - but a contract with a major label didn't. That, along with several years of getting on one another's nerves, left June Rich frustrated, then over, by 1998.
Not forgotten, though. "I think the legacy we left our listeners," Lee says, "is that a racially diverse band could present a mix of musical styles and appeal to a wide-ranging audience."
"Reuniting has given us a new appreciation of what we created back then," says Murphy, who calls it "especially amazing that people want to come back."
"Playing as a solo performer post-June Rich, [I find] listeners request those songs quite often," Gail says. "To this day, people tell me that they've worn out their CD or borrowed it but didn't return it. That's very touching to hear."