It’s the end of an era for a Philadelphia venue that gave the world Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, and even the vocal stylings of Ryan Gosling.
Center City’s First Unitarian Church has become a fixture among the city’s music fans. But they’re not seeking hymns or organ music.
Since 1996, “The Church” has hosted thousands of shows booked by the promotions agency R5 Productions, a DIY booking operation owned by Sean Agnew.
“The Church was pretty unusual, but really cool alternative space to see a concert. It was in the basement of a fully functioning and existing church,” he said.
Agnew, an Ardmore native and entrepreneur, dubbed his company after the R5 regional rail line train he rode home from the city.
“It never started out as a serious name. It was more of a joke. Where the first flier was the ‘R5 Train schedule’ and I just made a joke — wrote ‘R5 Productions Presents’ on it,” he said.
But the joke name stuck. While the city’s music scene has exploded, Agnew’s R5 has grown over the years into a real booking force. Over the decades, plenty of kids from Philly and the suburbs have seen their first shows at The Church — then went back to the sometimes very sweaty basement for more.
In a press release, the company says, “A bunch of now super-famous and legendary bands got their first ‘big break’ there … Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, At The Drive In, TV On The Radio, the xx etc. Even Ryan Gosling came through to play at the now infamous venue.'”
Agnew says the list of acts also includes “Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes — they both played their first Philly shows there. Along with numerous punk bands, pop punk bands like Jimmy Eat World, At The Drive In, The Get Up Kids, all sorts of interesting composers, Joanna Newsom.”
In recent years, R5 has expanded by opening two other venues: Union Transfer on Spring Garden Street and Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia.
Fans of all ages attended Church regularly
In addition to the novelty of watching a rock show in the basement of a functioning church, Agnew says something else distinguished the shows at the First Unitarian Church: there’s no bar and every show there has been “all ages.” The ability for any music fan to enter, regardless of age, came about Agnew says, at a time when there was only a few 21+ bar venues in Philly and virtually no other all-ages space.
“So kids sort of took it on their own to do shows so that they and their friends could see it. Kids under 21,” Agnew said, “That’s how I started doing shows in 1996. I was 18 at the time. So it was basically out of necessity where we were doing shows at the church or at unusual spaces because we couldn’t see bands anywhere else.”
Agnew said, even with more traditional venue options now in his fold, The Church is still his favorite venue.
While some may have wished they could order a beer, the lack of anything except the music also gave audiences a pure music experience. There was nothing else to focus on and no quick run to the bar between sets. Just music.
Why stop regular bookings in the beloved sweaty church basement? Agnew said the Philadelphia music venue landscape has changed dramatically over the decades, and it’s become more difficult to book bands for the space thanks to their new venues and others around the city. Without regular bookings, the company said the arrangement with The Church was no longer financial reliable. Instead, the basement shows will be replaced by an after-school group using the space.
“The church has been and continues to be an amazing partner to work with for almost 20 years,” he said. “What other church would ever let a group called Pig Destroyer play a five days before Christmas? We are forever in debt to them.”
R5 will continue to book shows upstairs in the church’s sanctuary, a space that has traditionally hosted tamer acts. R5 said they hope to still do basement shows on weekend evenings.