The closing of the Trocadero Theatre is upon us.
On Sunday afternoon, the storied 1,200-capacity showplace — which opened in 1870 as the Arch Street Opera House and which has been a music venue since the 1980s — will host Rock at the Troc: Last Local Band Blowout, an all-ages show with acts that have graced the stage of the former burlesque house returning for one last set.
Those scheduled include Three 4 Tens’ Dandelion, Pissed Jeans, Stinking Lizaveta, players from School of Rock Philadelphia, and the Workhorse III, fronted by Lisa Lyne Flynn, the former Lisa Christ Superstar, who booked the show. The shebang starts at 2 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 9, in time for the Game of Thrones finale.
After Sunday, the only shows on the Troc calendar are a Karaoke Gung Show hosted by evil overlord Skeletor on May 25 at the upstairs balcony bar and a final weekend stand on May 31 and June 1 by Big Mess Cabaret.
And that’s it. Owner Joanna Pang, whose family has owned the theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, will close the door on the Troc’s three decades-plus as a live entertainment venue, which followed previous iterations as a home for striptease artists such as May Dinform and Terry Firma, and a Chinese-themed movie house.
The Troc hosted many a high-profile act, including Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, Beck, Pearl Jam, Pavement, Dee-Lite, Radiohead, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Jones, Wilco, Kid Rock, Wu-Tang Clan, and, more recently, Robyn, Kacey Musgraves, and Kendrick Lamar.
Along with movie nights and zombie proms, there were hundreds of less-prestigious bookings, from Sunday afternoon punk and metal marathons to Lamb of God recording its Killadelphia album in 2004.
The most historic comedy show was when Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist in 2014 and Philadelphia magazine writer Dan McQuade’s video went viral, setting in motion events that led to Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault last year.
What will happen to the Troc? Pang has not said, but one prominent Philadelphia impresario doesn’t want to see it go. “I would love to buy it,” said restaurateur Stephen Starr, who booked bands including Neil Young and Guns N‘ Roses into the Troc in 1980s.
He hasn’t spoken to Pang, but he said he would consider a restaurant, or even turning it into a movie theater, a concept that he admits would likely be a "financial disaster.”
“I love the history of it. I love the name. It’s exciting to just think of ideas that might work. That place should never be closed. It’s too good to be closed.”
What follows is my own list of shows that leap out over — egads! — 30 years of seeing bands, as a critic and civilian. I saw many mentioned above, and others, like the time my Inquirer pal Sam Wood and I saw the Fall and wound up backstage with Mark E. Smith. I don’t remember too much about that night.
It’s a personal, chronological list. If you’re a music fan who’s seen shows at the Troc, you probably have your own.
This compelling combo happened in November of the first year that Starr, in partnership with Rick Blatstein, started booking shows at the Troc. It featured Alvin, lead singer of roots rockabilly band the Blasters, teamed with the Germantown interplanetary jazz explorers.
The unlikely pairing made strange sense because of the boundless musical curiosity of Alvin, and because the Arkestra joined him for two songs on his excellent solo album Un “Sung Stories”. I’ve seen the Arkestra play recently, led by nonagenarian sax man Marshall Allen, but this was the only time I caught them while Sun Ra, who died in 1993, was still alive.
Just a few days later, Nigerian Afrobeat inventor Fela Kuti played one of his only two shows ever in Philadelphia. I remember a crowded stage and a shirtless Fela playing sax on polyphonic songs that stretched and stretched. Was the show really four hours long? Did the first song last an hour? It was a long time ago.
One of the most famous Philadelphia gigs that never happened was the set by Rage Against the Machine on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour in South Philadelphia. The band fronted by Zack de la Rocha came out naked with mouths taped shut in protest of what they viewed as the censorship of the Tipper Gore-led parental warning PMRC organization.
Four months later, Rage returned to play a free make-up show at the Troc, then under the control of brothers David and Stephen Simons, the latter of whom is also now a prominent Philly restaurateur. De la Rocha railed against police brutality and the ongoing assault on women’s reproductive rights, quoted Eldridge Cleaver and Allen Ginsberg, and declared that “Anger is a gift!” in a riveting polemic rock-rap demonstration.
Kurt Cobain — who never played the Troc, but who did Nirvana shows at J.C. Dobbs and the 33rd Street Armory — killed himself in April 1994. A week later, Live Through This, Hole’s major-label debut album, came out. In June, Kristen Pfaff, Hole’s bassist, died of an opioid overdose. This date felt like a powerful statement of survival, an emphatic refusal to be swallowed by the abyss. Though the main thing I remember is the way Courtney Love stood with one leg up on the stage monitor in a defiant rock-star pose.
A memorable show. Minutemen and Firehose bassist Mike Watt headlined. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl played guitar with his new band the Foo Fighters, and arty noise band Hovercraft opened.
The wild card was Eddie Vedder, who had leapt from the Troc balcony during Pearl Jam’s “Porch on the Ten" tour in 1992. On this night, Vedder fooled no one as he wore a disguise playing drums for Hovercraft, whose bassist, Beth Liebling, he married the next year. Then, with punk godfather Watt, Vedder switched to guitar while Grohl played drums.
The most extreme example of an opening act slaying a headliner I’ve witnessed. Hatfield was a legit star. Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997, was a charismatic upstart. Word was spreading about Grace, the new album by the son of 1960s folkie Tim Buckley. As Hatfield wrote in 2017, “people were discovering Grace’s mysterious, confident charm, falling for it, falling hard.” They fell so hard that night it was hard not to feel sorry for Hatfield, faced with the impossible task of following an incandescent, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performer.
I loved this band, and still do. The post riot-grrl rock trio of Corin Tucker, who plays Tuesday at Johnny Brenda’s with Filthy Friends, Portlandia-star-to-be Carrie Brownstein and powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss played the Troc four times. Who can choose just one? If I had to pick two, I’d go with the 1998 show, in which they were joined by Mary Timony of Helium, and the 2000 date when they covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”
I remember this show as being marred by sound problems, and Jack White acting cranky. (Imagine that.) It was a tour date for White Blood Cells, the best White Stripes album. And the set list is epic, with not only that record’s “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground” and “Fell in Love With a Girl” but also killer covers, including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick.”
But something went wrong. Or that’s the story that has taken hold, because the White Stripes never played Philadelphia again. In fact, with the exception of a 2006 Raconteurs show opening for Dylan, White has avoided Philadelphia entirely, never once playing a show in the city. What did the Trocadero do to you to make you hate us so, Jack White? Please come back someday.
Marquee shows at the Troc became less frequent as corporate promoters placed midlevel shows in other venues. Kendrick Lamar’s “Kunta’s Groove Session” tour was an exception. Halfway through, the “Pimps Only” neon sign behind the rapper went dark. A power outage cut the sound for 10 minutes, with a sold-out crowd not knowing whether the show would go on. It did, and Lamar thanked the crowd for its patience and stressed the importance of getting away from oversize festivals and playing intimate venues like the Troc: “The people in this room are my core.”
What better date for an old school treasure like the Troc to spend its final New Year’s Eve with, than Low Cut Connie, the Adam Weiner-led piano pounding Philadelphia rock and soul band whose lascivious video for “Revolution Rock n Roll” was largely shot at the Troc. As the clock ticked towards midnight, LCC covered the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” and Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child,” as neither they nor the crowd realized time was also running out on the Troc itself.