‘Spring Awakening’ Star John Gallagher Rocks Up Folk Music With Old Springs Pike

John Norris talks with — and raves about — Gallagher's unusual 'shock acoustic' quartet.

There’s several square miles of land in between Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (the “Mushroom Capital of the World”) and Wilmington, Delaware. In that area, where folk music is apparently alive and well, you can find three streets: Old Kennett Road, Cold Springs Drive and Concord Pike. And within those street names lies the moniker of one of the most irresistible bands ever to call themselves “shock acoustic”: Old Springs Pike.

If that name sounds a bit down-home, a bit warm and fuzzy, don’t be fooled. While undeniably folk, Old Springs Pike is also a lot more. In fact, any description you might gravitate toward — indie-folk, roots/pop/rock, Birkenthrash acoustic, the Band-meets-Tilly and the Wall, a musical Upright Citizens Brigade — would not be untrue, but nor would it do justice to OSP. Effortless four-part harmonies, charging acoustic guitars, an accordion, melodica and unorthodox percussion that includes foot stomps and plastic water bottles are just some of the elements that add up to this unique musical experience.

(See Old Springs Pike’s John Gallagher and Heather Robb talk about the group’s history, hilarious onstage banter and more.)

The elephant in the room in any discussion of Old Springs Pike is the fact that the group counts among its ranks John Gallagher Jr., the breakout star of the 2007 Broadway season, thanks to his Tony Award-winning, pitch-perfect tragic/comic performance in the musical “Spring Awakening” (see ” ‘Spring Awakening’ Has A New Spring In Its Step — 11 Tony Award Nominations” ). Gallagher’s banner year has exponentially increased awareness of the band, as proven by a recent string of sold-out shows in New York.

Meeting up with OSP at a beer garden in their current stomping grounds of the Astoria neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens (they and several other Wilmington expats have relocated to Astoria), over a pitcher of Diet Coke, Gallagher explained that the show’s Broadway opening coincided with a wintertime hiatus for the band. “We came back from this break and said, ‘Let’s play [mid-size New York venue] the Knitting Factory again,’ ” he said. “The last time we played there we brought out 30-something people and that was considered a good turnout. We played there again and they all of a sudden had to turn people away at the door — which was kind of shocking.”

It has only grown from there — OSP have since packed houses all over town, yet what audiences have discovered is that while Gallagher is terrific, he is just one-fourth of this thoroughly collaborative quartet. Equally indispensable are James Smith, whose multi-instrumentalism is matched by his quick wit; Heather Robb, the girl who’s one of the boys, though she is mistress of the melodica and the water bottles; and flame-haired former Berklee student James Cleare, who lives and breathes music. Says Cleare, “We get a lot of fans coming thanks to John’s work in ‘Spring Awakening’ and that’s a lucky cross-promotion, but everybody is like 25 percent in our band. It doesn’t matter what reason people are coming. If we do our job, when they leave the venue they have seen all four of us come together at the same spot.” Indeed: We wouldn’t have covered this band for “You Hear It First” just because one member is a Broadway star. OSP is a real group.

The bond within the band is palpable — in a finishing-each-other’s-sentences kind of way — and that’s because the four have known each other for a good portion of their lives. In fact, Robb says she and Gallagher go back to when they were both “in diapers” — and later, at age 13, bonded over their mutual love of folk music, handed down from their musician parents. Some of their earliest musical memories are of hanging out at the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival — a festival that OSP themselves just recently played.

Provided you have a pulse, a good time is guaranteed if you see the band live, because almost as important to an Old Springs Pike show as the music is their seemingly spontaneous, often self-effacing banter — which on recent nights has ranged from such topics as Heather’s dress, Michael Myers from ‘Halloween,’ mice and late-night booty-shaking classes. It’s so entertaining it almost seems scripted — but “it’s just nonsense,” Robb claimed. “We tell people if we had actually thought about speaking we would have said something that made sense. But yeah, I think it’s become a selling point of our shows in that we’re best friends, and I think it makes people feel like they’re hanging out with friends too.”

While the onstage camaraderie comes naturally, trying to meld the band’s odd combination of elements into a promotable package — particularly for trendster-heavy NYC clubs — was more of a challenge. Even Gallagher, early on, had his doubts. “I wrestled for a long time with the idea that you couldn’t do acoustic music and make it have a rock and roll spirit and put on a real rock and roll show. So I wanted to conform, I wanted to play loud electric guitar.” In time though, he came around. “Once I started playing with Old Springs Pike I understood that most of the time there’s nothing more rock and roll than acoustic guitar,” he said.

They don’t have a manager; they don’t have a record deal; with nearly 20 original songs, an album will eventually happen but they don’t know when; and as long as Gallagher is tethered to a Broadway show, they can’t do a proper tour. But this musical foursome is something to behold. Do they seem like long shots? Maybe. You know what else was a long shot? A musical about sexually repressed German teens becoming the hit of Broadway. …

Old Springs Pike know what can happen to long shots.