When you think about the term “punk rock,” what comes to mind? Maybe a bunch of dudes with mohawks in leather jackets. Maybe screamed lyrics and smashed guitars. Maybe unapologetic political statements and radical thinking. All of those things used to come to mind for me, as well. That’s until I discovered a one-man band called The Homeless Gospel Choir. His real name is Derek Zanetti and he’s got quite a lot to say about punk rock. He is very open about his history with depression and thoughts of suicide. It happens to be punk rock that kept him alive. Not the music, not a specific band- but the movement. The idea that there was a group of people out there just like him; people who weren’t happy, didn’t fit in, and felt lost. Even though they were all completely different, they could be different together. That’s where they fit in. A group of misfits in love with music, letting themselves be themselves and nothing else. And even though people told Derek he wasn’t cut out for the punk scene, he made it happen anyway. Night after night he steps on stage by himself in his flowered button-up shirt, Crocs, rainbow fanny pack, and an acoustic guitar around his neck. That’s definitely not the image most people have of a punk rocker. Sure, technically you could call his music 'folk-punk.' Yet, he has encased the spirit of the punk rock movement and genre perhaps greater than any artist I’ve ever seen live.
In a place called Fishtown in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the home state of Mr. Zanetti), The Fillmore was all set up for a Frank Turner concert on the night of June 5th. The three openers were set to be The Homeless Gospel Choir, Lucero, and The Menzingers. Being practically a local band, Derek was the underdog here. Just after doors opened, I had asked security whose set was up first. The answer I received was “Uh... The Homeschooled Gospel Church.” But just as always, Derek left with brand new fans who he had touched the hearts of. I watched as he stepped on stage as a stranger to all but around five fans. These loyal fans had managed to snatch a barricade spot, singing along lyric after lyric to his songs. It’s always interesting to see how crowds react to his set. I was happy when the Philly crowd welcomed him with open arms.
Introducing just about each song with the words “this is a protest song,” Derek had the crowd laughing and listening closely to every lyric. He sang about his past and his struggles with mental illness in songs such as 'Depression' and 'Crazy.' He sang about punk rock and having an open mind with his song 'Musical Preference.' He even sang about the state of America and his criticism of those in office with 'Why?' And 'With God On Our Side.' The crowd seemed to be in complete agreement. I looked at the faces around me a lot, watching smiles light up with joy and hands clap out of respect. This one man with his single guitar and strong voice was able to do that; move an entire crowd of people who didn’t know him. No giant production, no special tricks, just the ability to make everyone feel welcome and reassure them that whatever it is they are going through, they are not alone. That's the most punk rock thing you could possibly do.
Even when Derek restarted a verse because he “screwed that up,” there was no awkwardness or tension. It was a set of pure fun, creativity, and inclusiveness. He ended the set with a song called 'Normal' which includes lyrics that state “you’re never gonna be normal, ‘cause you’re a punk.” This line got the crowd even more pumped than before. Derek decided to drop his microphone and sing the line one last time with the rest of the crowd. And that’s how he left the stage; with a crowd full of people singing lyrics they had not known just half an hour beforehand.
Afterward, I was able to meet Derek himself at his merchandise table. We had an in-depth conversation about past shows I had seen him perform at and what punk rock had done for the both of us. I watched as people met him after me. He shook every hand and smiled for every picture. It seemed as though there was nothing that brought him more joy than hearing the stories of his fellow punks. Sure, maybe some people hadn’t been initially excited that there were three openers before Frank Turner's set began. But from what I saw at that show in The Fillmore, there was not a single person who saw Derek's set that will not remember the name 'The Homeless Gospel Choir.' Maybe some will even follow in his footsteps and channel their struggles into cool folk-punk music, which is a good thing. Frankly, I think the world could use a few more protest songs.
The Homeless Gospel Choir is currently on tour with Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls through late June. Dates can be found on Bandsintown. Derek and his music can be found on Spotify, Twitter, and his website!