For decades, North Star Bar was one of those intimate venues where Philadelphians could watch a musician from a few feet away and months or years later tell friends how they saw a major band before it became famous.
It happened so many times. The White Stripes played North Star in 2001. Ryan Adams played there in 2000. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs came in 2004, OK Go in 2005 and John Legend in 2006.
Now, the North Star Bar is closing. The news broke this morning, and the Brewerytown venue’s last day will be Saturday. Though North Star earned a spot in Philly live music lore over its 34-year run, its quality of shows and size of crowds had declined in the last several years.
“As nightlife has shifted to Northern Liberties, Fishtown and even South Philly at the Boot & Saddle, the North Star has become secondary, even tertiary. It’s not that frequently that you see a big name show there, that you’re like, ‘whoa let’s go to the North Star,’” said Dan Deluca, the pop music writer for the Inquirer. “It was an important place for a long time… But it’s not a major blow to the scene as it exists right now.”
The North Star Bar wasn’t all music. It featured comedy, poetry and cabaret shows, as well as food. But musicians lent the venue its greatest fame. Time and again, future stars played there before beginning their rise, sometimes even weeks or months before becoming famous.
The White Stripes, for instance, played there in June 2001. Their seminal album “White Blood Cells” came out in early July of that year and by 2002 they were the toast of the rock scene. Joan Osborne played North Star in July 1995 (tickets were $6). Four months later, her massive hit “One of Us” started playing on top-40 radio stations.
John Vettese, editor of The Key and the social media coordinator for XPN 88.5, said that in the early 2000s North Star Bar and Old City’s Khyber Pass were the go-to venues for smaller acts in Philadelphia. All intimate venues have charm and allow for interactions between the crowd and the musical cats, but Vettese said North Star especially enhanced it with an exposed brick and tapestry background behind the stage and how the musicians came up from a basement and through the crowd before playing.
Vettese’s first show there was Frank Black, the lead singer of the Pixies. He was right next to the stage and slightly in the way to get the best view possible for an article he’d write for City Paper. Black crossed by him, saying something like, “Hey man, I have to get up to play the show.”
Vettese traces the decline of North Star to the mid- to late-2000s. Johnny Brenda’s opened in 2003 and quickly started having major shows. The live music scene was shifting to Fishtown and No Libs. Within a couple of years, Khyber Pass stopped having live music shows. North Star kept plugging away. Once in a while, a well-known act would come and draw a crowd, as the Mountain Goats did in 2007 and Fall Out Boy did in 2011. But more often than not, shows would be less than full.
“I really admire them for sticking around as long as they have,” Vettese said. He called dibs on the tapestry.
Added Deluca, “It sort of feels inevitable, with all due respect to what they do since it’s hard to keep a club open for a long time. But you didn’t see national headliners quite so much anymore, and there’s a ton of venues in town, like the Foundry, the secondary room at the Fillmore and the Ardmore Music Hall. There’s all these rooms competing in the couple-hundred capacity space.”
A selection of North Star Bar’s biggest shows*
- Joan Osborne, 1995
- G.E. Smith, 1997
- Ryan Adams, 2000
- Elliott Smith, 2000
- The White Stripes, 2001
- The Libertines, 2003
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2004
- British Seapower, 2004
- A.C. Newman, 2004
- OK Go, 2005
- John Legend, 2006
- The Mountain Goats, 2007
- Fall Out Boy, 2011
*Info from City Paper and Inquirer archives