Just off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, in a casino town where cover bands rule and Shoobies go home at summer’s end, an independent music venue that plans to operate year-round is getting ready to open, bringing in buzzworthy acts that regularly play Philadelphia showplaces like Union Transfer and World Cafe Live.
The room, a relaunch of the Anchor Rock Club that opened briefly pre-pandemic, is located steps from the beach on New York Avenue. The 650-capacity venue with deep Philly connections is being booked by Chris Ward and Greg Mungan — veterans of Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown — and is part of Atlantic City’s “Orange Loop” entertainment nightlife district, named after the street’s identifying color in Monopoly.
The club plans to host as many as 150 shows a year. The first three will happen Aug. 13-15, “Phish weekend,” coinciding with the three days of Atlantic City beach concerts by the massively popular Trey Anastasio-led band.
That weekend, Anchor Rock Club will be a jam band venue, with the Orchard Lounge trio of Chicago house DJs playing Friday, along with jazz hip-hop turntablist DJ Logic. Saturday is headlined by his Project Logic, featuring Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Sunday is headlined by Jersey jammers Dogs in a Pile.
The Anchor, a general admission room with a U-shaped balcony, has choice bookings lined up after that. On Aug. 28, Philly interstellar space time travelers Sun Ra Arkestra will headline, led by 97-year-old saxophone wonder Marshall Allen and celebrating the reissue of their 1978 album Lanquidity.
Philly indie quartet Hop Along, back on the road after singer Frances Quinlan’s 2020 solo album Likewise, play Sept. 22. Texas pop-punk-ska stalwarts Bowling for Soup are booked for Sept. 24. Several yet-to-be-announced notable names are scheduled for later in the fall.
Ward, who played drums in the adventurous Philly indie duo Pattern is Movement, started as sound man at Johnny Brenda’s in 2007 and became chief talent buyer at the club that sparked Fishtown’s transformation in 2011.
He stepped away from the booking end of the business at the end of 2019, concentrating on DJing and teaching music business at the University of the Arts.
He first got a look at the Anchor last winter with Adam Garbinski, who plays bass in the raucous rock band Marah and is in charge of beer and music at South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar.
John Longacre, who owns the Tap Room and Sardine Bar, is also the owner of the Anchor, which had opened briefly, in the fall of 2019, just months before the music industry came to a halt for the pandemic. (It had been booked by Bryan Dilworth, the longtime Philly concert promoter whose death in March 2020 just days before the industry shutdowns left a void that the Philly music scene is still trying to fill.)
Longacre, who is also developing apartments in the Morris Guards Armory Building on New York Avenue, asked Garbinski to help him reset the Anchor coming out of the pandemic. “John said to me, ‘Hey, we’ve got one more chance to take a shot in Atlantic City,’ ” Garbinski says. “Chris was the first person I called.”
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘This is a small Union Transfer in Atlantic City,’ ” says Ward. He spoke on a Zoom call, joined by his talent buyer partner Mungan and Garbinski, who will be the venue’s general manager.
Cool shows for A.C.
The potential was apparent. “I thought: Why do all the cool shows go to Asbury Park?,” Ward says. “Why can’t South Jersey be a secondary market? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Cool shows have gone to Asbury for decades, at the Stone Pony and other clubs that nurtured the central Jersey Shore rock scene that spawned Bruce Springsteen.
Atlantic City does pull in big names. Guns N’ Roses are at the Hard Rock Sept. 11-12, and Erykah Badu plays there Sept. 24. Gary Clark Jr. is at the Borgata Nov. 6.
And of course, the resort once known as The World’s Playground has a rich entertainment history. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. cavorted at Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club in the 1950s. Jazz greats like Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan headlined Kentucky Avenue venues Club Harlem and Grace’s Little Belmont.
In the 1970s, New York Avenue was the center of the city’s gay nightlife culture, with bars like Rendezvous and the Chester Inn. The Anchor building played a key role in that history.
“This venue was a disco called the Chez Paree,” says Mungan.
With a 24/7 liquor license, the Anchor can host dance parties through the wee hours, sometimes after a rock or comedy show earlier in the evening.
“I just feel like there’s so much to tap into,” he says. “To not just be an indie rock club, but to be reverent about the history of the city.”
After the summer’s gone
In summer, there’s always some non-casino pop music activity in and around Atlantic City. This year, the Cajun restaurant Bourré, just down the street from the club, has an outdoor series featuring Ghostface Killah and Waka Flocka Aug. 20-21.
But for Anchor Rock Club to succeed, it will have to become the kind of year-round original music venue that hasn’t existed in decades.
I grew up next door in Ventnor and spend time there every summer. Seeing a non-cover band in a club has always meant either driving to Asbury or Philadelphia. Yes, I have fond memories of seeing Los Angeles punk band X at Red’s in Margate, where the Ramones and Dead Milkmen also played. But that was in the 1980s.
The Anchor crew believes that void presents an opportunity.
“There are a lot of venues already, and most are bars or restaurants with some entertainment attached,” Ward says. “What we’re trying to do is what most music venues do in major cities: The attraction is the concert that you’re going to. And I haven’t really seen that in Atlantic City. That’s the untapped market.”
“We’re not going up against the casinos,” Mungan stresses. “We just want to be an alternative. An alternative with a point of view.” (In his band days, Mungan played bass in the much-loved 1980s Philly reggae-punk trio Scram, and he now regularly DJs in Philly clubs.)
“In the summertime, the whole seaboard is teeming with people,” Ward says. “And those people might want to see Japanese Breakfast, or they might want to see Bowling for Soup, or they might want to see [Philly roving dance party] Making Time. There’s just no outlet for those types of people in Atlantic City right now.”
After leaving Johnny Brenda’s — Mungan was laid off last spring — the booking partners have seen their careers take an unexpected turn. “I definitely did not have booking a venue in Atlantic City on my bingo card,” says Ward.
“We were setting up chairs to figure out what the capacity would be for a sit-down show, which is something we used to do at Johnny Brenda’s,” Mungan says. (They calculated it at 200.) “And I said to Chris, ‘Did you ever think we would be doing this again at a venue in Atlantic City?’ Not in our wildest dreams.”
The Anchor will aim to draw from Jersey, Philly, Delaware, and “even northern Maryland,” says Mungan. It helps that Atlantic City is now a college town. The Stockton University campus, with 1,300 students, opened in 2018.
Ward laughs when asked if the Anchor brand will be “Johnny Brenda’s by the beach.” The club “definitely has the intimacy of Johnny Brenda’s, but with the size of Union Transfer in its smallest form.” (UT holds between 550 and 1,200 in different configurations.)
Anchor will aim for the kind of quality experience Philly concertgoers are accustomed to. Johnny Brenda’s, Union Transfer, and the Fillmore have thrived, Ward says, “because they really think about the customer experience of the artist. Is the staff nice? Is the sound good? Is the green room nice? We’re all musicians, and the ethos is going to be catering to musicians and artists.”
Demand will continue in the offseason, Ward believes.
Last year, Rebirth Brass Band, Japanese Breakfast, and Scranton emo band Tigers Jaw were booked into the Anchor Rock Club. COVID-19 made sure those pre-summer shows didn’t happen, but “they were selling tickets,” says Ward. “Hundreds of tickets. That to me was some proof in the pudding. This venue has a lane. We just need to keep going down that lane.”