This month marks 20 years since I moved to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. I was the typical suburban alternative teen, migrating to University of the Arts to study among likely the only fans of The Velvet Underground and Nick Cave hailing from [mostly] upper-middle-class, yuppie-breeding towns like my own (Ellicott City, the home of then-only-four Lindsey Jordan/Snail Mail and the nightclub scene in John Waters’ Female Trouble). I had spent the nights of my high school years haunting DC and Baltimore venues like 9:30 Club, The Black Cat, and The Ottobar, and I was ready to make The Trocadero, TLA, and the Electric Factory my stomping grounds for at least the next four years…
Well, I wound up staying, becoming a staple in all of Philthy’s (I was calling it that well before Paul Thorson granted me the position of the blog’s Executive Editor.) concert halls. I’ve seen a few thousand shows in that time, including some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen (Morrissey doing two nights at The Tower in 2004, Sleater-Kinney at The Troc in 2005, and Luscious Jackson’s first show in 13 years at Union Transfer in 2013), in addition to some things in which only other music nerds would find great value (The Horrors on their first US headlining tour at North Star Bar in 2007, The Long Blondes at Johnny Brenda’s the same year, and Refused’s frontman – arguably the best of his generation — Dennis Lyxen playing to rooms of less than 50 people with various projects).
However, this list isn’t necessarily about the best shows I’ve seen in the 215 (although some of them are), but the craziest shows I’ve seen, the shows that I tell people about that they don’t believe actually happened. This includes cult icons playing unbelievably domestic settings (literally), unlikely guest appearances from some of the biggest “celebrities” of music (and otherwise), and pop megastars playing intimate, “real” venues, prior to their years of selling out sports arenas. These are 20 of the craziest shows that I’ve seen in the past 20 years…
Interpol @ The Adidas Store (4/8/2005)
Spring of 2005 saw …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead touring their fourth LP, Worlds Apart, while still riding the well-deserved wave of success of 2002’s Source Tags & Codes, which earned them a tour supporting Queens of the Stone Age, a perfect score on Pitchfork, and comparisons to Daydream Nation. However, Philly’s biggest (not best) show of this particular night took place just down South Street, at the exclusive grand opening of the long-gone Adidas store… Hipsters waiting to get into TLA for TOD noticed a commotion a block away, realizing that the hum of something almost post-punk coming from the private party at the leisurewear store was none other than Interpol performing live. With no way to get in, the mostly-UArts crowd decided to park themselves in the middle of South Street in an attempt to watch or hear something from Paul Banks’ crew, creating a traffic jam that would make Bam Margera’s two-lane hummer (which regularly clogged the block) seem like a fart in the wind.
Nine Inch Nails @ Electric Factory (5/18/2005 AND 5/19/2005)
For quite some time, Nine Inch Nails have found themselves double-headlining summer shed tours, closing out the stages of “ROCK” nostalgia fests, and bringing their teen angst of yesteryear to mega-clubs and theatres. However, in 2005, it had been a decade since Trent Reznor had brought his infamously destructive shows to nightclubs, long since playing the role of possibly the most subversive and unlikely arena rocker in the world. After having to settle for seeing Reznor and his ever-rotating crew playing the same venues our parents visited to see their teen rock icons during their “mature” years, the chance to see Nine Inch Nails churn out “Terrible Lie,” “Gave Up,” and “Reptile” in the Electric Factory felt like it was likely a twice-in-a-lifetime event.
Be Your Own Pet @ Disgraceland (2/23/2008)
Anyone who caught Be Your Own Pet live in their early days knows why it is so monumental that the Nashville garage punks have finally reunited. Whether they were blowing Sonic Youth off the stage at the Starlight Ballroom on the Rather Ripped tour, or playing the floor of the basement of the Church, with frontwoman Jemina Pearl dragging audience members across the band’s setup by their hair, BYOP’s apocalyptically abrasive and brilliantly haphazard approach to performance is, in my mind, the closest thing my generation will ever experience to The Stooges their first time around. This particular R5-booked show, which took place after the band opened the Factory for Arctic Monkeys and before the release of their sophomore LP (Get Awkward), took place in a rowhome in South Philly, where the then-underage band was drunk on Natty Bohs, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. (The person who screams, “Philly loves Russ Meyer!” at the end of the video would be your humble narrator.)
*Get your tickets to see BYOP 10/22 at Underground Arts here.
The Slits w/ Satanized @ Danger Danger Gallery (3/22/2008)
I have long maintained that my craziest concert-going experience was seeing ’77 punk legends and godmothers of riot grrrl The Slits perform at Danger Danger Gallery, a rowhome in West Philly. After original members Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt reunited the band in 2005, and before Ari’s passing in 2010, the band played three shows in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection: opening night of their US reunion tour at the Church in October of 2006, a bizarrely un-punk (and un-attended) show at World Café Live in July of 2007, and this… Between Ari angrily complaining that she couldn’t hear herself in the living room designed for binging Godard films, and the lack of a stage, enabling drunken moshers to inadvertently attack the band (backing vocalist, Sex Pistol daughter, and now renowned reggae singer/songwriter Hollie Cook had her keyboard toppled onto her, pinning her to the hardwood floor, which she has admitted to me via Twitter she still thinks about every day), the set was cut short, but they did manage to kick out a handful of Cut classics before stomping out of the main level fire exit. And I recently found out that the noise band with a girl keyboardist playing the concrete basement downstairs, prior to The Slits, who had to power through their set after someone vomited in the middle of the beyond-death-trap-crowded dungeon, was actually Satanized… Weyes Blood’s first band.
Kate Moss shows up to The Kills @ Johnny Brenda’s (5/3/2008)
In the Spring of 2008, both the ballroom of Johnny Brenda’s and nightlife blogs were still quite new to the zeitgeist of Philadelphia music. And, while garage rock revivalists-turned-rock stars The Kills had played the more intimate Khyber a handful of times, this was the first time that guitarist Jamie “Hotel” Hince was accompanied by then-fiancé, superstar, and Gen-X heroin chic icon Kate Moss, who spent the evening haunting the Fishtown dive. Although Moss stole most of the blog headlines (including this one), the sold-out show, featuring the majority of The Kills’ quintessential third LP, Midnight Boom, was quite amazing, and led the band to headlining shows at TLA and Union Transfer. It also led the venue to serve drinks in plastic cups for sold-out shows, after a moshing incident resulted in several hundred dollars of broken glass taking over the heart of the dance floor.
R.E.M. (joined by Eddie Vedder)/Modest Mouse (w/ Johnny Marr)/The National @ The Mann Center (6/18/2008)
This show has so much craziness going for it: The [hyper-buzzy] National opening a three-band bill, the period when NME Godlike Genius and Smiths guitar legend Johnny Marr joined indie rock virtuosos Modest Mouse, but, perhaps more than anything, ‘80s alt-rock legends’ R.E.M.’s very last Philadelphia show, which not only featured Marr joining them for the last two songs of the encore (as promised by the band’s message boards), but arguably the icon of ‘90s alt-rock, Eddie Vedder, casually strolling onstage to alternate versus of “Begin the Begin” with Michael Stipe prior to Mr. Marr’s entrance.
Chairlift @ Kung Fu Necktie (Fall 2009)
Well before she was penning songs for Beyonce and Solange, and selling out the likes of the Greek Theatre, Caroline Polachek was one-half of genius dream pop duo Chairlift. And while they were touring their debut LP (Does You Inspire You), sometime between a sold-out July Free At Noon, and a sold-out September date opening the Factory for Phoenix, Chairlift headlined Kung Fu Necktie. Despite having the album’s lead single featured prominently in commercials for the brand-new iPod, the show did not sell well, having to be moved from the 550-capacity Church to the 100-capacity metal mecca resembling a brothel in a Rob Zombie film. Around 30 people showed up, but it was honestly magical.
Lucius @ The M Room (Fall 2010)
Once upon a time, long, long before indie poppers Lucius’ third LP, Good Grief, led to a sell-out at Union Transfer, and mainwomen and lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig collaborating with the likes of Lukas Nelson, The War on Drugs, and Roger Waters (even going on to play the part of backup vocalists on the 2017 Us + Them Tour, which sold out three nights at Wells Fargo…), Jess and Holly put out Lucius’ very first album, Songs From the Bromley House, as a duo, in 2009. Although the album was out of print for about a decade until recently, and the band largely disowned it (See this 2013 chat I had with Jess.), it was quite the charmingly bizarre and minimalistic folk LP, largely well received by critics, including myself. Although they’re nowhere to be found online (including setlist.com), before Dan Molad and Peter Lalish (The first person to call JB’s a, “mini rock n’ roll ballroom.”), Jess and Holly did do a bit of touring, including a 2010 show at what is now Kostas. The performance has the two singing nearly a cappella, with only a triangle as accompaniment. There were four people in the room: Jess, Holly, the headliner, and me…
The Breeders @ First Unitarian Church (9/3/2010)
Pixies @ Tower Theatre (9/7/2010)
In the middle of another tour of legit-Pixies celebrating their iconic sophomore LP, The Breeders got tapped to play an ATP festival in New York. Having been nearly a year since the group played together, they decided to do two warmup shows, the second of which took place on a Friday night in the basement of the First Unitarian Church. The band churned out a 20-song set, including 7 of 15 tracks from their legendary Last Splash (Happy 30th!!!) Still happily committed to Pixies (Okay, well…), Ms. Deal returned to the Tower Theater the following Tuesday to perform “Debaser” through “Gouge Away,” in addition to a number of “the hits.” Is there another city to have the privilege of seeing Kim in The Breeders and Pixies within the course of a week?
Wild Flag @ Johnny Brenda’s (3/6/2011)
After Sleater-Kinney’s abrupt announcement of an indefinite hiatus made their previously announced 2006 tour the hottest punk tickets of the century, and the first season of Portlandia established Carrie Brownstein as a mainstream star and ineffably implausible comedic partner of SNL cast member Fred Armisen, the notion of 2/3rds of the definitive post-riot grrrl trio — Carrie and longtime SK drummer Janet Weiss, joined by Helium’s Mary Timony and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole – playing 250-capacity Johnny Brenda’s seemed only slightly more likely than The Smiths reuniting for a tour kicking off at the Tower Theater… At least for that generation of hipsters…
Deer Tick/fun @ Harrison Auditorium (10/14/2011)
Before Jack Antonoff became Bleachers, and during the end of his tenure as the frontman of folksy indie rockers Steel Train, he was the drummer in pop rock trio fun, who eventually went on to sell out The Mann, and whose success enabled Antonoff to date millennial hipster icon Lena Dunham for half a decade. However, this early show had the band paired with unlikely punky Americana rockers Deer Tick for some sort of UPenn Fall Semester celebration in a room where I once saw David Lynch try to sell a crowd of almost-entirely UArts students on transcendental meditation. The seated auditorium was only half-full, and I jokingly characterized fun as, “something between musical theatre and the band Train,” but their fans, who did resemble the cast of Glee, were quite rabid. I didn’t quite get it, but Deer Tick put on a bizarrely beautiful rock show in the lecture hall. 7 of the set’s 14 songs came off of the band’s brilliant upcoming forth LP, Divine Providence, which I once half-jokingly characterized as better than The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Charli XCX @ North Star Bar (7/30/2012) (Read my chat with Charli prior to the show.)
Charli XCX’s very first stop in Philadelphia was in March of 2012, when the synth-pop diva headlined the city’s quintessential hipster dance party, Making Time, at the city’s quintessential private, after-hours gay dance club, Voyeur. And, while the artist was yet to release an album, and no one in attendance seemed to be able to remember her name, a packed house of more-than-slightly-flavored gays and 21st Century beatniks really ate her up. However, Charli’s summertime, Monday night, all ages stop at the North Star brought out a whopping 17 (or possibly 19… I can’t recall.) admirers… but we all thought she killed it. (The footage above was not shot during soundcheck, prior to doors, but right smack in the middle of her performance.)
Blake Mills joined by Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne @ World Café Live Downstairs (10/9/2014)
Although Blake Mills never quite made it to mainstream stardom on his own, his work with the likes of Fiona Apple, Conor Oberst, and Jenny Lewis cemented him as a guitar virtuoso and producer extraordinaire quite some time ago. Never was that more evident than at his fully-seated/limited capacity show at World Café Live, touring behind sophomore LP, Heigh Ho, when Ms. Apple joined him as a surprise guest for three songs at the most intimate area appearance of her career. Later, the leather-jacketed elder rocker who spent the better part of the evening sharing a meal with friends next to me made his way to the stage for a rendition of famous Nico number “These Days,” and turned out to be none other than the songwriter himself, Jackson Browne.
Halsey @ Underground Arts (3/31/2015)
Before debut LP BADLANDS propelled New Jersey’s own Halsey on a seemingly meteoric rise to fame, the young electro chanteuse played a rare all ages pop show at Eraserhood’s favorite basement for punk, metal, and hardcore. Double-headlining with Young Rising Sons, the soon-to-be arena headliner churned out a number of future classics, including “Castle” and “Colors,” along with all of debut EP Room 93 for a room full of scantily-clad, sweaty teens, out on a rainy school night, imagining they were at this generation’s closest thing to a rave.
Big Thief @ Boot & Saddle (12/13/2015)
This actually could have been any number of shows. Before Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek (who were married at the time!) were selling out Franklin Music Hall and Union Transfer, and earning Grammy nominations, as the voice of indie folk for their generation, they played sparsely attended gigs at Tin Angel, MilkBoy, and Boot & Saddle. This pre-Masterpiece, free show, part of a Weathervane Residency, featured the now-classic title track of their debut LP played to a little less than 20 people.
Jessie Reyez @ Trocadero Balcony (6/7/2017)
On a balmy summer night, around 150 fans found themselves in this fourth-tier, perpetually-empty, home to high school hardcore acts and hair metal heroes of yesteryear, that happily welcomed emerging R&B singer/songwriter Jessie Reyez to their stage for what setlist.com lists as her second show ever, after at least one of the city’s more reputable “intimate” spaces told her they wouldn’t be able to sell any tickets to what it was she was laying down. Reyez played an hour-long set of early material (featuring many songs on an acoustic guitar), including current live staples like “Shutter Island” and “Figures,” both of which she played earlier this month when she opened Wells Fargo Center for Sam Smith. (I was in especially good spirits because, just prior to her set, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a woman’s voice proclaim, “Nice jacket!” only to turn to see Jessie in a matching Adidas track jacket as she navigated her way through the audience to take the stage.)
Billie Eilish @ World Café Live Upstairs (10/20/2017)
Often regarded as the craziest concert in the city’s recent history, Billie Eilish’s first-ever headlining tour had her at the 220-capacity World Café Live Upstairs (“The Lounge” was a few years off.), performing every song off of her Don’t Smile at Me debut EP, in addition to a number of early singles. Although Ms. Eilish was a long way from the pop icon she is today, the most with-it teenage girls and gays of Delaware County high schools were out in full force, selling the show out well in advance.
Phoebe Bridgers w/ Soccer Mommy @ World Café Live Downstairs (2/21/2018)
Those who have visited the box office at World Café Live in recent years may have noticed a poster on a filing cabinet for a show featuring headliner Phoebe Bridgers, alongside opening act Soccer Mommy, at the University City venue and wondered if the lovely ladies of the WCL box office had some fun with Photoshop one day… But this show actually happened… and not that long ago… 23-year-old Phoebe was on the ironically named Farewell Tour, her first-ever headlining jaunt, in support of solo debut Stranger in the Alps, featuring now-classics “Motion Sickness” and “Funeral,” in addition to a stunning cover of “It’ll All Work Out,” by the recently passed Tom Petty. Soccer Mommy, in a fabulously tacky Billy Ray Cyrus shirt, played a number of tracks off of her forthcoming debut LP, Clean, including still-staples “Your Dog” and “Cool.” Walking out of the venue, a guy about my parents’ age stopped me to comment on my The Velvet Underground & Nico shirt, telling me that he’d seen the Velvets at the original Electric Factory on the White Light/White Heat tour and it wasn’t even sold-out. At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever publish that story in a piece, but it seems apropos.