“There is no possible way that global warming exists,” I think to myself, descending a flight of concrete stairs into the cold, dimly-lit basement of the First Unitarian Church at 12:45 p.m.
While there, several men in tight jeans and puffy jackets with fur-lined hoods stand, looking around, hopping up and down and rubbing their hands together to keep warm.
They are the members of Dameira, Fall of Troy, Portugal the Man and Tera Malos, the four bands set to take the stage later that afternoon, and they aren’t any happier with the weather than I am. A few of them have congregated near one of the tables in the back, where a canister of coffee, a couple of chipped mugs, and a basket of sugar and Sweet ‘N Low have been laid out for the caffeine addicts. The tiny puffs of steam rising from their cups o’ joe don’t seem to be doing much, though. They still look freezing.
Sean Agnew, R5 Productions’ head honcho, is busy sweeping the stage when I come in. He stops when he realizes that two young-looking girls with A-line haircuts
and heavy eye makeup are standing by the door, holding Ticketmaster print-outs.
“Can I help you?” he calls out. “Umm… we have will-call tickets,” one of the girls giggles. “We were looking for the box office.” He goes back to sweeping. “Come back when the show starts! We’ll have the list ready then. You’ll just have to give us your names.”
The girls hurry out, whispering, glancing
back every now and then at the man on the stage with a broom. Almost as much of a rock star as the rock stars themselves, Agnew represents all that is cool about R5 Productions, its concerts and the independent music scene in Philadelphia.
His rugged good looks and position of power have turned him into a cult celebrity of sorts, popular among teenage hipsters and stalked on Internet blogs.
One in particular, known by the alias “Sean Spotter,” was abandoned this past September, but tracked him pretty closely during the summer of 2006. Written by a blogger named “Agnewbian,” its main goal seemed to be acquiring as many fuzzy cell phone pictures of the music mogul as possible.
“The ‘Sean Spotter’ thing was really weird and scary at first,” Agnew will say in a later interview. “But, after a few weeks, I found myself checking it every day to see what I did the evening before.”
This evening will be a busy one – after Dameira, Fall of Troy, and the others play, Agnew and his R5 staff will only have an hour to get ready before another set of bands hits the stage.
There’s no time for slacking off, and after he finishes sweeping, Agnew moves on to another task – making sure the nearly frostbitten band members have enough coffee, all of their instruments and room to unpack merchandise.
“I feel like we’re all at summer camp,” a man with a thin mustache says, digging his hands deep into the front pocket of his worn blue sweatshirt, “It’s cold and early in the morning and we’ve all been spending too much time together.”
“Plus,” he adds, looking at the jug of milk Agnew just brought out for the coffee, “we have counselors.”
Musical equipment cases and crates of T-shirts and CDs are everywhere. The band members stop loafing and start setting up. Meanwhile, Agnew takes down orders for fruit and other healthy goodies
from the vegetarian-friendly Trader Joe’s grocery store nearby.
“Today has been a little unique,” Agnew tells me. “There’s a day care here in the morning, so we had to get all of that stuff out of the way before the bands got here. Generally, before a show, we have to go to the bank and get money, then go get food, beer and water for the bands, then talk to the bands and let them know what’s happening, make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
It’s a good thing that day care time is over. Rockers being rockers, all conversation is peppered with expletives.
One drummer, examining his set, says, randomly, “People jump onto my drums and knock them over and they get [messed] up.”
Having heard that, I’m suddenly more excited than ever for the concert to begin.
Dressed in layers, Agnew leaves to pick up the food while the band members continue to prepare for the show. Suddenly a blast of techno music vibrates from the speakers. Several guys leap to their feet and an impromptu dance party begins.
Those who aren’t shimmying and shaking refill their mugs with coffee and give each other hugs. They’re willing to do anything to get their blood pumping.
“It’s like a refrigerator in here,” one of them says.
When Agnew returns, bearing bags from Trader Joe’s and a box of clementines, everyone disappears into a side room to feast. It isn’t long, though, before they’re back to their instruments and Agnew is back on stage. The basement is starting to look more like it will once it fills up with bodies – the cases are put away and the drums, guitars and keyboards are hooked to amplifiers and speakers.
Two R5 Productions workers bring in close to a hundred bottles of water and the hallway leading to the bathrooms is converted into a record store, with boxes of cheap used vinyl lining its bulletin board-covered walls. The doors are set to open at 2:30, but already there’s a line of people snaking around the side of the building, laughing and talking excitedly amongst themselves.
“If you want the real R5 experience, you have to go to Sean’s bedroom,” Steven James, who has been working with Agnew for three years, says in a knowing
voice. I’m standing in Agnew’s “office” upstairs, which is actually one of the First Unitarian Church’s offices and where he’s printing out the will-call list for the show. There’s a slight, uncomfortable pause as I tried to think of something to say, then James realizes what he said and adds, “That sounds shady, but it’s not.”
Agnew became involved with the Philadelphia music scene in 1995, when he started going to “do-it-yourself” shows that his friends had organized. After helping out with a couple of those, “I decided to give it a shot and do my own show,” Agnew said. R5 Productions was born, and Agnew’s life has revolved around all-ages concerts ever since.
“While I might not like every band that comes through,” James says, “I agree with the ways the shows are run.”
When Tera Malos, the first band in the line-up, hits the stage and I feel the need for some Tylenol, I look around at the head-bopping hipsters in the audience and at the merchandise tables and realize that
I have to agree. The atmosphere is friendly, intimate, and relaxed – and, even though I’m not wearing skinny jeans, even though my hair isn’t dyed black, even though I’ve spent most of the afternoon
feeling very much like a fringe player, I’m instantly at home.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.