Johnny Brenda's, the club that sparked Fishtown's revival, turns 10
T en years ago this week, a music-venue-that-could opened above a former boxer's bar at the corner of Girard and Frankford Avenues on the border of the then-not-so-hip neighborhood of Fishtown.
Ten years ago this week, a music-venue-that-could opened above a former boxer's bar at the corner of Girard and Frankford Avenues on the border of the then-not-so-hip neighborhood of Fishtown.
The opening-night bill on Sept. 13, 2006, at Johnny Brenda's didn't seem that big a deal at the time.
It featured four local acts: a neighborhood band fronted by songwriter Adam Granduciel called the War on Drugs; a solo set by Meg Baird, then lead singer of the psychedelic-folk band Espers; blues player Jack Rose; and Bardo Pond, the West Philly psych-rock band fronted by Isobel Sollenberger.
In retrospect, however, that's a pretty impressive lineup. The War on Drugs have since been rapturously acclaimed. Baird, now working out of San Francisco, records for Drag City and is about to head out on a European tour. Rose established himself as a fingerpicking wizard before his death in 2009 and is revered as a modern John Fahey. Bardo Pond have carried on throughout a two-decade career and will be back on stage Tuesday to mark the club's 10th anniversary.
Looking back, the inception of the club owned by Paul Kimport and William Reed - also owners of Northern Liberties' pioneering Standard Tap and an as-yet-unnamed venture set for Kensington this fall - serves as a reminder of how Johnny Brenda's has had its act together from the very beginning.
Over the years, that has meant memorable nights with touring acts like Sufjan Stevens, Janelle Monáe, Jim James, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Noura Mint Seymali, not to mention prominent locals such as Low Cut Connie, Kurt Vile, and the Sun Ra Arkestra, which will return on Halloween night.
The club was featured prominently and intelligently as a showcase venue in Ryan Coogler's 2015 Rocky movie, Creed. And, yes, when Justin Bieber was looking for someplace cool in Philly to hang and shoot pool, he went to Johnny Brenda's - and got carded.
But the 10-year anniversary also shows how much the music scene has changed in Philadelphia, and how much Johnny Brenda's has had to do with that.
The bar, restaurant, and music venue is correctly credited as the neighborhood hub that sparked Fishtown's revival. But its high standards also have led to an upgrade at spots across town, making Philadelphia a much nicer place to go hear music than it had been in the smoke-filled, stale-beer-smelling, 1 a.m.-start-time days.
Mungan has been at the club since the opening bell, but Ward admired it from a distance before coming aboard.
An experienced sound man, he says: "I had pretty much mixed in every single room in the city. Doc Watson's, the Pontiac, the North Star Bar. All of the viable small rooms. And there was not always that great of a fan experience."
"When my band played at Johnny Brenda's, I was like, 'Whoa, this is what a small-capacity venue can be!' I got to get in there."
Johnny Brenda's carries on that ethos in an over-21 room, where there are a bar and restaurant ecosystem to make bands feel at home. "It's their house for the night" says Ward. "We're not just packing bodies in there." Indeed, one of the most attractive things about the club is that it rarely feels cramped. The city code limits the upstairs capacity to 300. Tickets sales are capped at 250.
Yes, says Agnew, the longtime all-ages promoter who booked national acts into Johnny Brenda's in its early years and who now has part-owner interest in both Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle.
"So when JB's came along, it just completely blew the doors off of every other bar/venue in town. I think it took about 10 weeks before every band and agent/manager was asking how they could play there. Philly finally got the classy venue it deserved."