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Boot & Saddle in South Philly is closing permanently due to the pandemic

The indie rock venue has been a crucial part of the music scene since 2013. Sean Agnew, who co-owns and books bands both there and at Union Transfer, announced the closing Tuesday.

Boot & Saddle Bar, 1131 S Broad St, Philadelphia as seen on Tuesday morning November 10, 2020. This South Philadelphia bar and music venue is closing.
Boot & Saddle Bar, 1131 S Broad St, Philadelphia as seen on Tuesday morning November 10, 2020. This South Philadelphia bar and music venue is closing.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Boot & Saddle, the South Philadelphia indie-rock venue and bar that’s been shuttered for eight months due to the coronavirus pandemic, will close permanently.

Sean Agnew, who co-owns and books bands at the club as well as at the larger Union Transfer, said that a deal had been finalized to close the South Broad Street venue on Monday.

Agnew said the 150-capacity club, which opened as a music venue in 2013, was a casualty of the COVID-19 shutdown, which brought the live music business to a sudden halt in March.

Last month, Agnew said in a National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) statement that as a result of scores of shows postponed or canceled, his venues were “not months, but weeks away” from going under.

Ultimately, he told The Inquirer on Tuesday, he and his partners — he co-owns the businesses with Bowery Presents, a subsidiary of concert promoters AEG — decided that the Boot had to die, so that Union Transfer could live.

‘A double whammy’

“We no longer have the luxury to be paying the rent, bills, and all the other expenses for two shuttered venues,” Agnew said. “It’s a double whammy. Not only do we have $0 in ticket sales from the past eight months, but we have refunded thousands of customers for canceled shows.”

Neither the business nor the building has been sold, Agnew said, but he and his partners have exited their long-term lease of the building. Assets such as the sound system, lighting, and bar equipment will be sold “to help strengthen Union Transfer’s position, ensuring that it can survive and reopen, even if that’s well into 2021," he said.

“I am sure there is some biblical parable about offering one of your sons as a sacrifice for the good of the other," Agnew said. "Feels like the tale of 2020 could very well be from the Old Testament.”

“This is a major loss for Philly,” said Kerri Park, general manager of Boot competitor World Cafe Live, who called the venue “a staple of our independent music community.”

“Sadly, I am not surprised,” Park said. "We are all, collectively, on this cliff of difficult decisions that will have to be made. … We need immediate relief right now to prevent a full-on, extinction-level event when it comes to our small, independent venues in Philadelphia and across the nation.”

A South Philly indie outpost

When it opened as a venue in 2013 with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo — who called themselves The Both — as first-night headliners, the Boot & Saddle represented a new outpost of the burgeoning local music scene, a gastropub to serve the gentrifying neighborhood and the sole South Philly stage to balance out the concentration of clubs like Johnny Brenda’s and Kung Fu Necktie in the Fishtown section of the city.

Before its rebirth, the Boot had been dark for 17 years. But its immediately recognizable neon sign still loomed unlit over the stretch of Broad Street south of Washington Avenue, promising that “Country & Western” could he heard inside. (The neon sign will remain on the building.)

And that genre could have been heard during the Boot’s dive-bar heyday, in the 1980s and 1990, when it was a popular spot for country fans, sailors docked at the Navy Yard, and South Philly bohemians.

Since 2013, it’s been an important intimate stage for local and touring acts. Every December since 2015, Tim Showalter of the band Strand of Oaks performed a three-night solo stand dubbed the Strand of Oaks Winter Classic. The longtime Mount Airy-based rocker continued the series last year, even after he moved to Austin, Texas.

Last December, South Philly piano-pounding showman Adam Weiner led his band Low Cut Connie in a sweaty, intimate last-minute B&S show after selling out Union Transfer, which holds 1,000 and was regularly hosting sold-out shows, pre-pandemic, by acts like Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, indie songwriter Waxahatchee, and big band jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington.

“When I was thinking about where we could stage a surprise Connie show and get back to our sweaty club roots, Boot & Saddle was the obvious choice,” said Weiner. “It was a special night. It was so hot in there, the walls were sweating.” The band uses video shot in the club in its new “Private Lives” video.

Philadelphia songwriter Wesley Stace, who opened for Mann and Leo, was the first performer to play the room, and Boston duo Tall Heights were the last, on March 11. Soon-to-be superstar acts like Lizzo and Sam Smith played there on their way up.

“It was always a great spot to see local bands, but the best part for me was catching up-and-coming artists around the country before they went bigtime,” said frequent Boot concertgoer David Gaier of Wynnewood.

"You saw them up close in a tiny room, and you could usually hang out with them in the bar after the show. The shows were super cheap, usually $10 or $12 — cheaper than a movie ticket. And it always felt a little extra special to see a show right on Broad Street in South Philly. I’ll really miss it.”

The view from Philly

Indie venues in Philadelphia and around the nation have been devastated by the pandemic shutdown and have found themselves unable to operate under the city’s current coronavirus crowd-size regulations, which allow for crowds of 10% of a venue’s capacity.

In June, 90% of NIVA’s members said they would be in danger of closing permanently by the end of the year without assistance from the federal government. NIVA president Dayna Frank, who owns First Avenue in Minneapolis, called the concert industry “a post-vaccine industry.”

Performing arts venues have been patiently waiting for help as a $10 billion Save Our Stages rescue plan that passed the House of Representatives in October has been held up in the U.S. Senate. SOS legislation to aid venues has also been introduced in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

Venues around the country have closed by the dozens, including the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh and Chameleon Club in Lancaster, but Philly venues have largely managed to hang on so far. This summer, news broke that South Philly blues club Warmdaddy’s would close, but last month owners Robert and Benjamin Bynum announced the venue would reopen on North Broad Street.

With no assistance from the government arriving, though, the Boot could hold out no longer.

“We are one of those venues which NIVA said would not be able to survive 2020 without federal assistance,” Agnew said. “Unfortunately, an agreed-upon stimulus never made its way out of Congress, and it’s too late for Boot & Saddle. We couldn’t wait any longer. I’m hoping that in the coming weeks and months it will eventually find its way through Congress so that the remaining indie venues can be saved.”