July 29, 2011 by Jess Herbine
As a prelude to their weekly email blast, R5 Productions made the official announcement July 12 regarding a brand new music venue opening in Center City come fall. Spearheaded by the king of Philadelphia’s alternative music scene, Drexel graduate Sean Agnew, the former Spaghetti Warehouse at 10th and Spring Garden streets will be resurrected from its glory days as the Union Transfer train depot station into a music hall of the same name.
Boasting “do it yourself” production and frequently haunting spaces like Kung Fu Necktie, Johnny Brenda’s and the infamous heat dome that is the basement of The First Unitarian Church, R5 has become a small sovereignty in Philadelphia’s performance scene, built upon affordable tickets, relaxed, honest service and intimate performance spaces.
Though Union Transfer will see an upgrade from its R5 acquaintances – air conditioning, for one, as well as a brand-spanking new sound system – the building’s age and design promise a similar brass tacks appeal. But what is most attractive about Union Transfer, according to Agnew and partners, is that it fills the city’s voided niche for a venue offering mid-level capacity.
“We saw a big need for a 600-person sized venue in Philadelphia,” Agnew wrote in an email to The Triangle. At 1,000 and 1,200 capacities, respectively, the Theater of Living Arts and The Trocadero Theater are too spacious for some artists circuiting the east coast. “All of the venues are either too large or too small — aside from the basement of The First Unitarian Church — and we wanted to provide an option where there would be great sound, lighting and an overall awesome experience for both bands and fans.”
This undertaking is a marriage of partnerships between Agnew, Four Corners Management (arguably Philadelphia’s best alcoholic enablers) and Terminal 5/Mercury Lounge favorites, booking agency Bowery Presents. Four Corners Management’s Avram Hornik and Mark Fichera, entrepreneurs of the Drinker’s empire (with Drinker’s West, Drinker’s Tavern, Drinker’s Pub, Lucy’s Top Hat and Noche) had been looking for a change in “business as usual.” Reports were made of Hornik’s interest in the old Jumbo Theatre at Front and Girard in 2008, which he aspired to evolve into a restaurant and venue before suddenly calling off the project.
Hornik explained, “Jumbo was our first effort to get into the Philadelphia market with a music venue. It’s important to us to work with the neighbors and have their support, and with Jumbo that wasn’t the case.” So, in their search for the next notch in Four Corners’ bedpost, the company naturally fell in line with Agnew’s musical endeavors.
“We were each mutual fans of each other’s work. Four Corners saw that there were hundreds of people coming out to shows in a church basement and approached us asking if we would ever want more of an established venue [vs. renting a facility],” Agnew wrote.
Together, the three of them determinedly sought out Bowery Presents, because as, Agnew explained, “we both really admired the way they ran things in NYC.”
As a separate organization, R5 Production will still continue to utilize its traditional spaces with a bit of help from Agnew, who was the ringleader in R5’s one-man show, heading facets of booking, publicity and production in the past. Agnew is now shifting around some responsibility, taking on the official position of Talent Buyer with Union Transfer and leaving some other responsibilities to booking agents at R5 and Union Transfer’s new hires.
Union Transfer already promises a few cool characteristics to its concert-going clientele. For one, though it has been made clear that the venue was created in part to fill the wide-open niche of mid-sized music arenas in the area, one aspect, which excites Agnew greatly, is the venue’s ability to expand in size. Should Union Transfer attract an artist with the ability to sell more than the allotted 600 tickets, the venue’s stage, sound system and lights can all be moved back to accommodate 1,000.
On-site parking will be available for up to 200 vehicles, and there is enough space for 150 bikes to be locked outside. In addition to its tangible commodities, here’s an exciting prospect for those undergrads left out of all Johnny Brenda’s events: the venue is open for all ages — and has a bar for the 21+ (and with Four Corners as a Transfer partner, calling it just “a bar,” I’m sure, will prove highly underwhelming once it is up and running).
And for those obscure, indie music connoisseurs, Union Transfer’s programming will offer a more diverse lineup than that featured at the Church, offering shows for an older crowd as well as the stage setup to house much bigger productions.
“Expect more AAA, world music, hip-hop, in addition to the indie rock, punk, electronic and whatever else we do at R5,” Agnew wrote.
And (let out your sigh of relief here) also expect the same notoriously affordable ticket pricing, the same no-fee box office and the same low online surcharges.
The venue opens Sept. 21 with a performance by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. For more information, visit www.utphilly.com.