It’s 4 p.m. A band’s sound check is being delayed by an upstairs baby dedication service.
Although the basement that’s housing tonight’s punk show is clean, it’s only because of the efforts of Jim, the employee responsible for tidying up after last night’s Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Welcome to Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church.
The Philadelphia underground music scene has long existed outside of the realm of normalcy. Bars and other legitimate businesses often make way for people’s homes. But when the basements are exhausted, promoters and bands need somewhere to turn. Nonprofit spaces such as First Unitarian Church are often relied upon to fill the void.
“It fills a hole that we have, and it fills a nice little hole that the Philly music scene has,” Matt Miceli, the building’s superintendant, said. Miceli is largely responsible for the logistics of the events that happen, including the several basement punk shows that occur each month. In addition to being a journeyman electrician, Miceli plays guitar and sings in West Philadelphia rock band HighKick. Miceli is also a man with little in the way of faith. He is a surprisingly typical employee of the First Unitarian Church.
“They actually have a policy, for my position at least, of not hiring members of the congregation,’’ Miceli said.
The perception that Philadelphia show-goers have of the church is one that’s largely incomplete. To most, it’s known as one of the city’s premier mid-sized punk venues. There’s rarely a Philadelphia punk or punk band that hasn’t donated a sizeable amount of sweat to the space. And although weekends are often rife with stage dives and excessive amounts of perspiration, the day-to-day operations of the church are starkly different.
Miceli estimated that 2,200 people a week pass through the First Unitarian Church.
“It’s different meditation classes, different churches rent the space to meet – the Unitarians don’t have a problem with other faiths coming in and using the space. There’s two full-time daycares in the building from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., I guess 80 kids upstairs and 40 downstairs,” Miceli said. “It’s intense. It’s constantly moving. We’re open ‘til 1 a.m. [or] 2 a.m. most nights. We open up at 7 a.m. every day.”
The relationship between the church and the Philadelphia music scene is one that’s more than a decade old. Norman Fouhy, the building’s business administrator, was looking for new streams of revenue, and Sean Agnew of R5 Productions fame was looking for a space to house his shows.
And while it’s a partnership that may look volatile on the surface, it’s been remarkably successful so far.
“It’s a give and take relationship,” Miceli said. “You’re putting sometimes 400 punks down in the basement of a church. It can be messy. Things can get out of hand. You definitely have to be aware of what you’re getting into, and everybody is out and open about it. But there’s 100 percent support behind it. We even let shows happen at the main sanctuary of the church.”
The church is an example of the relationship between Philly’s DIY and nonprofit scenes on a fairly large scale. However, in addition to large spots such as the First Unitarian Church or The Broad Street Ministry, the city has a number of smaller spaces that operate under similar ideals. Enter the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Space, also known as LAVA.
Andrew McQuiston, the 25-year-old owner of Philadelphia-based hardcore label Hydrogen Man Records, is one of few individuals who book the space. But like the church, the raucous punk shows make up a very small portion of what goes on at LAVA.
In addition to housing a public library and hosting several Food Not Bombs events a month, which is an organization dedicated to feeding those in need, LAVA serves as a venue for a variety of socially conscious events. And about once a month or so, they open their doors to McQuiston and the often politically-charged bands that he books.
“The last couple of shows I’ve done there have been benefit shows for political prisoners, so that’s something they’re definitely on the same page with,” McQuiston said.
During his near decade of booking shows, McQuiston has utilized everything from basements, VFW halls and train stations. But West Philly’s LAVA space stands out as a rarity because of the consistent ideals it has with his punk label.
“When I started the label, I wanted to work with bands that were pushing and being confrontational in the way that they expressed themselves,” McQuiston said. “I think the bands that I book tend to be that way as well. So it’s just kind of carried through to what I do at LAVA when I do book shows there.”
While the relationship between Philly’s underground music scene and charitable spaces may seem contentious at first, it’s one that’s been astoundingly successful. Although in most circumstances punk and religion mix as well as, well, punk and religion, in Philadelphia it’s been a non-issue.
“It doesn’t come up too often,” Miceli said. “They realize we’re cool enough to have shows like this in the basement, so why would they be against playing there? It usually works itself out.”
David Zisser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.