Don’t let the gigantic, neon boot perched un-illuminated outside the front of the bar fool you. Boot & Saddle in South Philly is once again open for business.
Under the direction of Sean Agnew, the wunderkind responsible for Philadelphia’s R5 Productions, as well as Avram Hornik of Four Corners Management, the formerly dormant Boot & Saddle has found a new lease on life.
The Boot & Saddle is the second joint venture of Hornik and Agnew.
“[Hornik] and his partner approached me a long time ago and were like, ‘Hey would you ever consider having shows at your own spot if we helped facilitate?’” Agnew said. “Particularly, they were alluding to, ‘Hey, let’s build a venue together and you could have your shows there.’ This was over a couple of years, but we eventually found the space that’s now the Union Transfer, but was the Spaghetti Warehouse at the time.”
With the success of the Union Transfer, the duo decided to reconvene and set their sights on finding a smaller space.
“It was almost the same exact story where we looked at a couple of spaces for a smaller room and found the Boot & Saddle,” Agnew said. “We started working on that almost two years ago. This one has been in the works for a while.”
Although the original Boot & Saddle’s M.O. was country and western music, the rebranded Boot & Saddle kicked off with a sold out concert featuring The Both, a relatively new collaboration between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. However, the honor of the inaugural performance went to English singer-songwriter Wesley Stace, formerly known as John Wesley Harding.
“I’m literally up first,” Stace said.
Heavy on the banter, Stace capped off his set with a song he used to perform under his old moniker “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” which he made abundantly clear was about his inability to make love to the music of the legendary folksinger, rather than actually having intercourse with Bob Dylan.
The Both followed with a performance that saw the two perform their new, unreleased record in its entirety, as well as a smattering of their own individual songs, including a rendition of “Voices Carry,” the hit single produced by Mann’s former band ‘Til Tuesday.
Despite cranking out a set that clocked in at more than an hour and featured almost exclusively new songs that were unheard by the general public, the reaction to The Both was overwhelmingly positive. For the first time in 17 years, The Boot & Saddle found utility.
The Boot & Saddle was always, to some degree, an oddity. As the gaudy, neon cowboy boot brazenly mounted on the outside of the building suggested, it formerly operated as South Philadelphia’s premier country and western bar.
Once described by former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic Sam Gugino as, “the kind of place where they drink Budweiser straight from the bottle, wear Genesee beer T-shirts and smoke unfiltered Camels,” the Boot & Saddle of the ‘80s and ‘90s drew much of its clientele from the formerly thriving Philadelphia Naval ship yard.
“It was a cheap bar where a bunch of naval officers who were working up at the naval yard in South Philly would hang out, as well as punks and general weirdos,” Agnew said. “So it was a really interesting vibe.”
The scene is starkly different 17 years after the doors of the saloon were shuttered. Although the sawdust floors, painted tin ceilings and the iconic boot remain, 21st century amenities such as an expansive beer list, a 60-seat main room that serves as both a bar and a restaurant and a backroom that caps at 150 that hosts live music, have been implemented.
The only thing the bar doesn’t seem to have is admission for the underage.
“I’m definitely happy to open this space up and have a baller venue of my own, but I definitely want to have a small space for all ages shows,” Agnew said. “I know that’s what the city needs. Unfortunately, the way that the liquor laws in the state and city work make that almost impossible.”
The upcoming concert calendar features everyone from the crass, vulgar oi-punk group Hard Skin to dub producer Mad Professor. It’s a far cry from the Hank Williams covers that used to be a prominent feature of the spot.
“If anything, we didn’t want to be pigeonholed into booking one type of music,” Agnew said. “For instance, last night we had all country and blue grass bands. Friday is a punk show. Saturday is an indie rock show. Then there’s going to be an electronic show. We’re doing some more experimental, jazzy-type shows, and some singer-songwriter stuff. The idea is definitely to make the calendar as different and varied as possible, for sure.”
David Zisser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.