Pontiac Grille owner Daryl Madden is modest when it comes to his contribution to the Philadelphia music scene.
“I was a rock and roller years ago – now I’m more of a businessman,” he claims.
It seems ironic then that someone who makes this statement also happens to run the hottest and longest running rock and roll bar in the city.
The Pontiac, located just off of 3rd on South Street, has played host to a slew of local and national acts over the years. Madden was still bartending at the then J.C. Dobbs when acts like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam made their Philadelphia debut at the site. Then, in 1997, Madden and a partner took over making some drastic changes.
“I bartended here for 11 years,” recalls Madden as he looks out of his Pontiac office, high above South Street. “I was looking for a bar, any bar actually, I was looking all over the city. Kathy (James, Dobbs owner) wanted to sell, and I didn’t even know.”
Madden was originally going to take over the property where Tattoo Moms stands, when the deal fell through at the last minute.
“That deal fell apart the day of the signing,” he says. “I was in here telling Kathy how upset I was, and she said to me “You ought to but this place.” I was so upset it went right over my head. I was lying in bed six months later, literally with one eye open, and I could hear her saying “You ought to buy this place.” I got right on the phone – that very second.”
Madden, along with partner Jeff Fusco, amidst much outrage changed not only the name of the sacred to many name of Dobbs, but the look and feel of the bar as well. Re-opening as a coffeehouse, the two were going for a more acoustic feel.
“We wanted music at the volume that you could talk over,” says Madden. “The kind of place you could hang out and not get blown away. That was really cool for about six weeks.”
After the newness period wore off and business started to slip, there was only one recourse according to Madden:
“We decided to go back to rock and roll – and it saved the business.”
With it’s dark wood interior the bar has a Haight-Ashbury type feel of being secluded from the rest of South Street – yet still right in the center of it all. The bi-level Pontiac slots the bands downstairs at full volume while broadcasting the live show upstairs on monitors, albeit with a slightly more subdued mood, allowing patrons the opportunity to socialize freely.
“I like dark and dirty- I’m that type of guy,” says Madden who bought out Fusco in January of 1999. “Rock and roll should be dark and dirty. If we put stained glass and chrome in here, it just wouldn’t feel right.”
Returning to the rock also gave local acts an opportunity to rejoice at having a high profile nationally known venue to play.
“We offer a place to play, as open minded as we are, we take pretty much any kind of rock and roll,” says Madden. “Not only that, but we provide a place for these guys to network. They come here on Tuesday, which is open mic night, and go upstairs where it quieter and get something going.”
“In a city that is none-to-kind to it’s own rock-n-roll community,” says Paul Czech, manager of one of Philadelphia’s premiere acts, Betty Whitetrash. “The Pontiac Grille, through Darryl’s management and guidance, is a performance space that allows bands of all stages of their development to play to appreciative, critical, and most of all, interested audiences that have a real appetite for this genre of pop music.”
“You’ve got to be cutting edge,” says Madden. “You’ve gotta keep changing. The bands that are real good – they grow and leave.”
One of the bands that recently got their local start at the Pontiac is the multi-platinum act Creed.
“It’s always bittersweet to leave a place like that,” says Creed bassist Brian Marshall. “On one hand you’re moving up and gaining more fans – but you can’t beat the intimacy that comes with somewhere like the Pontiac – it’s a perfect place to catch a band on the rise.”
“”The Pontiac is a first step for a lot of bands,” agrees Madden. “I’ve seen a lot of bands grow here – Tidewater Grain just got signed – there’s a lot of bands who came here over the years and now they’re rocking hard.”
Attesting to this fact is the framed one-sheets that line the walls downstairs at the Pontiac – a virtual monument to the bands who came through and subsequently exploded (Matchbox 20 anyone?) and some of those who had a hit or two and then fizzled (whatever happened to Duncan Sheik anyway?).
One thing that you can count on – the Pontiac will always rock.
Whether it’s a national band making their Philadelphia debut , or one of our homegrown talents building a following count on seeing them – and Madden at the bar. Typically, he’ll be outside collecting the cover, or inside behind the bar, or maybe just talking to the customers – one of the few owners in the city that’s so accessible.
“I like to stay involved, I like getting out there and meeting the people – it’s fun,” says Madden as he looks around at the various posters announcing acts past and future. “It really is fun.”