The end of an era for the First Unitarian

Music venue First Unitarian Church will no longer host weeknight shows.

On Sept. 21 at Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church on 21st and Chestnut streets, YACHT frontwoman Claire L. Evans stepped down from the stage, microphone in hand, to sing and dance to a crowd.

“Thanks for coming to church this Sunday,” Jona Bechtolt, a founding member of the conceptual pop group, said.

“I already made that joke,” Evans said.

In the back, immersed with YACHT’s fans, members of the evening’s opener, punk group White Fang, sang along. They put their T-shirts back on after their set and stood to listen, dripped with sweat, like everyone else in the church’s basement converted music venue.

“It’s in Philly. It’s a church. And you can bring beer here,” White Fang’s Erik “Free Weed” Gage said of what makes the First Unitarian Church a hidden gem to the city.

YACHT and White Fang’s show on Sept. 21 was the first since R5 Productions, the Philadelphia DIY promotions agency that has booked shows at the First Unitarian Church since 1996, announced that they will no longer host weeknight shows at the church – the side chapel and sanctuary excluded – and will only hold weekend shows. During weekdays, an after-school group will occupy the space.

“There will still be occasional shows in 2015, but this is our last ‘hurrah’ so to speak,” R5 Productions posted on their Facebook page.

The announcement sparked an outcry from loyalists of the legendary yet low-profile venue that is known for fueling Philadelphia’s punk and indie scene. R5 Productions has booked bands like Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons and Two Door Cinema Club before they made a name for themselves in the U.S.

The First Unitarian Church also provided an all ages environment, enticing younger people from both inside and outside of the city. “All of these shows were always all ages,” Jim Shomo, who now works for R5 Productions, said. “It was also an excuse to go to the city. The main reason I started coming to the city in the first place was to go to shows here, and then I experienced the city from that.”

R5 Productions opened other venues like Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle within the past few years, and mentioned in the recent announcement that due to these two venues and others that have opened within the city, booking shows at the church has become problematic.

While R5’s Jordan Hollander collected tickets for the evening’s show, he said he remains hopeful for the venue.

“I think the history of the church and what it brought to Philly was that it created an alternative space other than any sort of corporate rock venue,” Hollander said. He’s worked for R5 Prod u c t i o n s since 2009, and has come to shows at the church since 1998.

“I don’t think Philad e l p h i a ’ s music scene would be anything like the way it is today if there hadn’t been shows going on here in the nineties,” Hollander said.

Hollander has attended around 500 shows at the venue, and said that the best part about it is how little he believes it has changed fundamentally, even as more than a decade has passed.

“It’s just always been a handful of people putting on the show and packing it as much as it can get packed. It’s always been hot and kind of gross, but really fun,” Hollander said.

This intimate atmosphere is what continues to bring people to the venue.

“This is my favorite venue,” Davis Thal, a junior film and media arts major said. “[White Fang] was just sitting there afterward, and I just went out and said, ‘Hey.’ That’s why I love coming here to such a small venue, because it’s just so much more personal.”

Some are optimistic about the future of the church as a music venue, while others reminiscence on the spot and its influence.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Mark Dickinson, bassist of West Chester, Pennsylvania-based band Spraynard, said in an email about R5’s announcement. “It makes sense from a logical standpoint, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.”

Spraynard performed at the First Unitarian Church several times, and recently performed its reunion show at the spot this past May.

“I know there have been so many influential shows that have been there, but now they’ll just take place at a new venue,” Dickinson said. “Things will always fill the void left.”

Kerri Ann Raimo can be reached 

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