Philadelphia’s musical roots
Union Transfer, a new, bi-level space, is fast becoming one of the hottest venues for live music on the US east coast.
While jazz has early roots in New Orleans and Motown Records started in Detroit, Pennsylvania’s largest city – more famously known as the birthplace of American independence – is home to a surprisingly eclectic mix of pioneering musical artists and new sounds.
Philly Soul songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, jazz great John Coltrane, rock and soul sensation Patti Labelle, hip-hop pioneers The Roots, punk rocker Joan Jett, rapper Schoolly D, neo soul artist Jill Scott and consummate entertainer Will Smith (once half of the unforgettable pop rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince) are just a few of the artists who put Philadelphia on America’s musical map.
Today, the city’s music scene continues to reflect its rich musical heritage. Established artists still call Philly home, while new venues and emerging local talent make the city a great stop for any music lover. So, get on board the love train (or, Amtrak) for a peek into the freedom loving, musical soul of Philadelphia.
Start at World Cafe Live (WCL), a three million dollar space with two stages and incredible acoustics that marries the size, sophistication and cleanliness of an upscale theatre with a friendly, down-to-earth vibe. Founder Hal Real licensed the World Cafe name from radio station XPN in 2004, but besides sharing the same building, passion and “philosophy about the power of music”, World Cafe Live (the venue) and World Cafe (the radio show, syndicated by NPR ) operate independently of one another. WCL embraces local artists, many of whom built their followings at the venue’s Philly Rising open mic nights or Monday Jazz Jams. Philly singer/songwriter Lizanne Knott, who performs often and runs the city’s outpost of the New York Songwriters’ Circle at WCL, called the atmosphere “respectful and like family”. With 550 ticketed and 200 free shows a year, WCL hosts live music in just about every genre, including jazz, rock, folk and rap (Philly native Queena Marie stopped by in early January 2012). The cafe is also where artists often gain popularity before becoming global superstars -- Adele played four times before she got her big break and Corinne Bailey Rae was a chart-topping UK artist first introducing herself to US audiences when she played WCL in 2006.
Not far from WCL is The Blockley Pourhouse, a two-and-a-half-year-old nightclub in a space that was once a 19th-century insane asylum. More recently, The Blockley was the home of The Chestnut Club, a popular venue in the 1980s and 90s for iconic acts such as The Ramones, Violent Femmes, Iggy Pop, De La Soul, Nirvana and the Dave Matthews Band. With a small stage, wide dance floor and well-stocked bar, the Blockley’s young, party atmosphere is perfect for a mix of alt rock, hip hop, electronic and rap shows, where local artists and regional/national acts play the 700-person, (primarily) standing-room-only space. Dr. Fameus (from local electronic jam band Disco Biscuit) and Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan played recently, while nostalgia is kept alive with monthly performances by Splinter’s Sunlight, Philly’s most popular Grateful Dead tribute band.
Two musts for indie rock are Kung Fu Necktie and veteran Johnny Brenda’s, both located in Philly’s Fishtown area and among the best spots in the country for indie music according to QD Tran, an editor at The Deli, a national indie music scene website. Kung Fu Necktie opened its doors in 2008 (two of its owners are from Lit Lounge on New York City’s Lower East Side) and the weathered dive bar atmosphere is accented with kitschy, vintage items that could be from your eccentric aunt’s private art collection (if your eccentric aunt plays pinball). You will find mostly local indie rock and local DJs, plus the occasional record launch party. At Johnny Brenda’s, founded in 1967 by pro boxer Johnny Brenda and under new ownership since 2003, more established national indie rock bands like Tokyo Police Club, Dr Dog, Nada Surf and Fleet Foxes join the line up of local, emerging indie talent. The bi-level venue, which has an elevated stage, wraparound balcony and capacity for 250 people, draws a decidedly hipster crowd.