Johnny Brenda’s Talent Buyer Chris Ward likes to think of the Fishtown venue as a record label. Rather than a catalog or discography, Johnny Brenda’s has the calendar of artists they’ve booked to reflect their perspective.
That’s a dope concept. Since, as a concert stage, JB’s turns 10 tomorrow, let’s take a minute to think of them that way too.
In this sense, Johnny Brenda’s was totally an indie outfit that got started atop a bar that owners William Reed and Paul Kimport had opened three years prior. The Inquirer very recently lauded JB’s for jumpstarting the Fishtown boom. The time was right to connect with artists in the city’s bubbling DIY scene and build a repertoire. With former production manager Brandy Hartley at the helm, they built an ethos for courting acts as music fiends first. They firmly believe the space’s intimacy and the staff’s diligence around sound quality helped build their cred. (Sound engineer Paul Cobb is a musician, Ward and venue manager Greg Mungan are too.)
“Back in the mid-aughts, indie rock was at its height,” explains Mungan. The focus and branding made sense then. “It was part practicality, but also it was good practice to say what we were doing,” Mungan continues.
The style, which melds a dive bar feel with an old school theater, was the right capacity too. As we’ve previously explained, a basement show might hold 100, so venues like JB’s that hold 250 are the next step up.
But as the decade progressed, they started to notice that the ever-digitizing means for discovering and consuming music might be giving way to listeners who weren’t married to simply one genre.
“There’s a different paradigm today,” says Ward. “There’s labels that do only garage rock, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” But, he says, “If I were putting together a discography of a label that were Johnny Brenda’s, I’d want it to be diverse.”
On the eve of the 10th birthday of Johnny Brenda’s concert stage, we asked JB staffers to share their fave flyers from across the years with us. The flyers they could get their hands were more recent. They reflect some of that diversity the venue has developed over time, but they also show how JB’s deep ties to the city’s indie community, not to mention their place as a launchpad for it, are thriving.
Lou Barlow, 2015
Ward: Lou Barlow was going to play the room. We had booked him, and they wanted an opener. Barrett and I were sitting in the office like, the perfect opener would be Frances Quinlan from Hop Along.
A little backstory: Frances works downstairs in the restaurant. Not as much so anymore, but in the past, when she wasn’t touring as much, she was a hostess downstairs on our busy nights.
Hop Along is taking off like the War on Drugs did. We had Hop Along for New Year’s Eve a couple years ago. New Year’s Eve seems to be like part of our catapult like, ‘Can we have you for a little bit more? Bye!’
So, Frances is not just a performer that we all love, she’s a part of the family. So I was like I have Frances’ number, I’ll text her. She texts me back, and she’s like, “I’m on an airplane right now. Guess who’s in the front row? Lou Barlow.”
…They essentially worked it out on a plane while I was texting them in Philadelphia. It was the most kind of uncanny experience of [my career.]
Screaming Females, 2013
Barrett Lindgren, assistant talent buyer, via email: This is one of my favorites for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s totally gross.
That was one of the first shows that I booked top-to-bottom after I started working at JB’s, and the band wanted this artist Colin Clark that we all really like to do the poster. I was familiar with his work so I kind of knew what to expect, but when we got this drawing of two lizard zombies licking each other I was a little worried JB’s would wonder what kind of dude they just hired to make these decisions. Everybody ended up being into it and the show was great.
My personal favorite moment was Screaming Females covering Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” at midnight.
Oliver Mtukudzi, 2015
Mungan: I was looking for another one that I really wanted to highlight, but I couldn’t find it at home. Janelle Monae played here in 2010, and she did two nights. But then while I was looking for that, I came across this one.
This was an amazing show for many reasons. We work with outside promoters. This particular promoter, Lucky Goat, are a couple of friends of mine. They have just have a particular love for many types of African music.
[Lucky Goat’s] Andy Frankel, he was lamenting the fact that when he used to live in Seattle, he used to put on a lot of shows out there… We were having a drink downstairs, and he’s like, “I would really love to get back involved,” and I was like, “Well, you have a spot to do shows.”
Oliver Mtukudzi, he’s from Zimbabwe and he’s a huge popular figure… It’s really the kind of music that’s super bright but it’s also very gritty, super political— so personal that it’s political. He had like a four, five piece band with him. It was amazing from beginning to end. One of my favorite shows we’ve done here.
Bleeding Rainbow, 2013
Lindgren, via email: Sarah Everton from Bleeding Rainbow (RIP but now she’s in Telepathic & Blowdryer who are great!) does these amazing portraits of TV characters for fliers sometimes, and this one of Melissa Joan Hart as Clarissa was definitely my favorite.
Something about the Clarissa character just perfectly embodies a bill of 90s-inspired-feminist-oriented-punk. A lot of us grew up with that show, and I think we’re better for it.
Lindgren, via email: This is another one by Sarah Everton, and it actually depicts another one of our favorite ’90s TV shows— Pete & Pete.
Getting to book Polaris was a dream come true. Mark Mulcahy’s music (both Miracle Legion and Polaris’ Pete & Pete soundtrack) was really formative for me. The opening hits of “Hey Sandy” just bring millennial weirdos back to our happy place.
I wanted the show and the poster to evoke the magical feeling that Mulcahy’s music and Pete & Pete have, and I thought Sarah totally captured that with these hand-printed Mr. Softee posters.
War on Drugs, 2012
Ward: You don’t normally have posters this large. [Note: the poster is 18×24.] Reason being you can’t really put it around town— it’s too big. Secondarily, you can’t really put it around the venue— it’s too big. But the upside of it is it’s gorgeous.
Mungan: And we can put it in our office. (Ward agrees.)
Ward: They were selling them that night, that’s why they’re numbered. They were signed by the designer [Shawn Hileman.]
This was screenprinted, whereas everything else we’re going to show you has been digitally printed. So, it was a New Year’s Eve show. To be fair, it was two shows. It was December 30th, which was kind of like a warm-up, and then they did New Year’s Eve. This was 2012 going into 2013. They had just sold out Union Transfer right before. They were on the rise.
Mungan: They were just about to blow.
Ward: They themselves paid for and made this poster. The shows sold out really fast, [tickets] were just gone. There was no need for posters in a promotional sense.
Chris Cohen, 2016
Lindgren, via email: I admittedly have a personal bias on this one, as it was designed by my partner, Robyn Campbell, who also happens to be a phenomenal poster artist.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Cohen’s various projects for a long time, and I really fell in love with his latest record. I thought Robyn’s eye for minimal design and collage just suited the aesthetic of the show, and I was really thrilled with how this one turned out.
What’s happening for JB’s birthday week
Today kicks off Johnny Brenda’s anniversary lineup. Here’s who’ll be saluting the venue on making it to double digits.