Walter Sickert towered over his army and kingdom.
A halo of pale plumage encircled a head of gnarled brunette dreadlocks. He strode defiantly onto the Sinclair stage clad in a raven black cloak that swooped down to his toes, his square-framed shades covered what his burly beard had missed. He settled into a chair at center stage with a matching jet black acoustic, adjusting a music stand plastered with a kaleidoscope of colorful craft jewels.
His gang of vaudevillian minstrels took to the stage in costumes ranging from tightened corsets fit for a burlesque show to giant fake moustaches. The outlier was drummer TJ Horn who kept it basic with a band tee and jeans. The Army of Broken Toys has no uniform look or sound, and that’s the beauty and freedom of the project. The performers felt like separate, unique characters who each added something different and bizarre. It was difficult not to let the mind run wild and begin forming backstories about this fascinating – and slightly creepy – cast.
As the troupe tuned up their mandolins and ukuleles, a few hometown fans squealed and cheered across the sold out Dead Milkmen show. Sickert and his band could easily be labeled “circus” by some, or “steam punk” by others, but the reality is that they are neither. They play their own genre of timeless tunes dubbed “SteamCrunk.”
As the lone opener for the oddball Philly punk legends, some were left scratching their heads at the dapper carnies bent on the macabre. One already-drunken dad with a PBR tucked in his back pocket literally turned his back to the stage in protest.
Sickert kicked into his first song “Devil’s in the Details” with a looping, bluesy guitar lick lifted by a flitter of viola courtesy of Rachel Jayson. His deep, soulful crooning built the tension higher until the full band came crashing in with a gloomy, southern two-step. As the crowd began to shift and dance under the light of glow sticks, the glowering oldtimers had no choice but to retreat.
From flutes to random toy instruments, the Army of Broken Toys had plenty of tricks up their sleeves, even picking a special volunteer from the audience to hold a suitcase full of bells for Sickert’s wife Edrie to play. Throughout the performance, she clung to his every breath, complimenting him with eerie backup vocals and dissonant, lurching chords from the accordion and melodica.
Don’t be fooled by their sultry smiles and catchy sing-a-long choruses, Sickert and his Toys revel in clever yet morbid wordplay along with themes of heartbreak and mortality. The somber, folky “A Friend In Goddamn” had the frontman growling out tales of “swinging on the gallows” and murdering his parents, while “Soldiers Came” confirmed that “it’s too late, we’ve all been burned at the stake.” The group hit a high note when they broke out the title song from their musical “28 Seeds,” which featured the whole band wishing desperately for the apocalypse through a massive sing-a-long chorus.
And yet despite their bleak outlook, both the band and their fans shared an intense, joyful passion throughout the set. As more circles of waltzing couples and lone dancers spun across the floor, the band fed off the building energy with each tale they had prepared. Sickert was in top form as he barked and belted through the hauntingly ghoulish “Cataclysm,” while “Bully Boys” brought the dance floor to a boil with a creepy, dark polka feel.
By then the frontman had the concertgoers in the palm of his hand as he joked about melting down their vinyl records and making them into hats, or buying some of the “tiny dinosaurs from hell” at their merch table. Sickert’s character finally came into full focus with his raucous banter and hilarious song dedications that ranged from Kubrick’s skull to “eating the rich in space.” Edrie playfully claimed they have the skull lying in their kitchen somewhere.
The circus-like spectacle came to a close with two aptly chosen cover songs: “Paint It Black” and, in celebration of Halloween, the theme from the 1984 classic Ghostbusters. Sickert and Co. gave the Stones cover an unlikely but welcome twist with vocalist Mary Widow wailing out the iconic main melody in a way that was both breathtaking and spine-tingling. The Ghostbusters theme, however, didn’t quite mesh together and had a few stumbles, along with a disturbing lack of Who-ya-gonna-call’s coming from the crowd.
As Rodney Linderman, frontman of The Dead Milkmen, busted into songs about big lizards in backyards and “smokin’ banana peels,” it was no question that Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys were the perfect openers to book. He sang their praises throughout the set. They might have not been the obvious choice, with their theatrical, genre-bending absurdities, but both bands shared a sense of camaraderie through embracing the grotesque, the taboo, and the unusual.
- Diverse and unexpected instrumentation, including melodicas, ukes, and toys
- Costumes and personalities onstage reminiscent of a creepy circus troupe
- Sickert's absurdist banter and personality won over the crowd
- A few trips, stumbles here and there
- A polarizing band, parts of the crowd rolled their eyes or physically turned away
- Kids today are just too cool to sing along with "Ghostbusters"