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Ari Halbkram is an entertainment and business brand consultant, A&R manager, podcaster, filmmaker, and writer. Visit his site to learn more.

Wandering Philadelphia

Eyes mural above the  defunct  Johnny Rockets, 5th and South Streets, Philadelphia. Mural by British  street artist   My Dog Sighs . Photo by Ari Halbkram.

Eyes mural above the defunct Johnny Rockets, 5th and South Streets, Philadelphia. Mural by British street artist My Dog Sighs. Photo by Ari Halbkram.

My friend Nick is sitting in as lead guitar for the rock band Dorothy, and the tour swung into town for a show at the TLA this weekend. Earlier in the week, some of the bandmates in Nick’s regular gig, The Underground Thieves, decided to plan for a pre-show get-together downtown so I decided to make a day of it and go down early for a center city walkabout. 

Like many Philadelphians, or in my case, Philadelphia-adjectentians, South Street holds a special place in my heart; it’s hands down my favorite spot in the city, and it connects quite directly to my earliest days as a music writer. The TLA in general was ground zero for my music industry entrance, and getting to walk up and down the blocks around it, then stepping back into it with many of the same people whose shows I filmed, or wrote about, or managed over the years, felt like a very warm and fuzzy dream.

At a time when most of the trendiest city areas are speeding their ways toward corporate ubiquity, I was happy to find that the weirdos still seem to be running things along South Street. I’m not sure if the demographics support the hypothesis, but it feels like some of the grittier and more grungy parts of Philly have, perhaps just for a moment, managed to hold back the encroachment of gentrification. Still, my memories of South Street aren’t limited to the TLA, and there were lots of reminders everywhere that the city and I have been aging at the same time.

The Legendary Dobbs, formerly of 3rd and South. Photo by Ari

The Legendary Dobbs, formerly of 3rd and South. Photo by Ari

Take Dobbs, for example. I’ve been witness to its demise twice in my life; the last time I was also witness to its rebirth. In total, I’ve been party to that venue’s lifecycle at least 1.5 times. It may be true that some men dream wildly about opening their own bars and music spots, but it’s never been part of my fantasy. That said, pausing to reflect on the sale sign above the door, the great memories I made in that place, and the proximity to the best slice of pizza in the city, I wondered for a moment if it’s something I’d ever want to try. 

There are still lots of things that give me pause on the side streets: beautiful murals, mirrors and papered graffiti are still everywhere, and the light in the alleys is gorgeous. Life’s dichotomies and oxymorons - its stranger-than-fiction coincidences - always capture my attention, and there were a ton of them on display during my walk.  At the corner of South and Randolph streets was a novelty clothing store (hats and shirts with hilariously outdated and ironic phrases on them) whose windows were papared with Going Out Of Business signs, while an A-Frame sandwich board out front promoted the services of the world-famous psychic, Madonna, who provides insights into the future from her second-story apartment above. I wondered if Madonna and the shop owner below ever had a chance to discuss sales forecasts. For all I know, the Going Out Of Business signs were premature but predictive.

I also stopped into Repo Records and was glad to overhear conversations from really young people who have the right level of reverence of the music of the past, commingled amongst others who really don’t get it at all. “Do any of your other locations have it,” a young girl asked, innocently. If her question dripped with sincere ignorance, the response she got from the shop worker was drowning in incredulity. “No,” the clerk replied snarkily. “We’re a mom-and-pop store.” And thank god for mom-and-pop record stores. I never fail to find some gem in these kinds of places, and Repo has always done me well. Last year, it was discovering a pristine (and well-priced) copy of Tom Waits’ “Bone Machine;” this time it was  “War of the Gods” by Billy Paul - a relatively recent discovery from when I did a Shuffle and Repeat episode about TSOP, and an album, which had been on my mind just a week ago.

Justin DiFebbo and Michael Montesano of the Underground Thieves. Photo by Ari Halbkram.

Justin DiFebbo and Michael Montesano of the Underground Thieves. Photo by Ari Halbkram.

I met up with the Thieves at Tattooed Mom, another haunt from what feels like a lifetime ago, and really enjoyed watching the bar run out of draught beers one-by-one. The vegan cheesesteak was terrific and it really felt good to eat healthy food in a fun place amongst good friends. It was fun swapping stories about touring and music videos and record collecting. Fun fact: I’d picked up two other records at Repo, including “Floodland” by the Sisters of Mercy - the only other person I’ve met who knows and likes that band happens to be an Underground Thief, so it was a pretty great coincidence to be drinking with an hour after I found the record.

The show was a blast. I debated snapping some photos or videos during the set, but because I’m three weeks into an Instagram break, it just felt like they would get lost in my phone. Dorothy - the band - is terrific; tight, playful, and really talented. Dorothy - the frontwoman - has done something bold and interesting by imagining a version of Led Zeppelin, fronted by Janis Joplin, and heavily inspired by Stevie Nicks. Lots of great instrumental pieces meant the band had plenty of chances to just let loose, which in turn meant that I got to watch Nick do his thing. It’s the rare occasion that I’m in the audience just watching him work at his craft, but getting to do so is love at first sight, all over again. Any time there’s a hometown show, I find myself beset on all sides by good music, good company, good chances to mingle with friends-that-feel-like-family, and good memories - both old and new.

All in all, it was a nice chance to revisit a place I know, rediscover it, and reconnect with what got me to where I am in the first place.  Perhaps its a false sense of being too busy to notice, but there’s art and culture and life happening all over the area - and I work here, every day, just a few blocks away. I should come back more often to say hi.