April 1623, 1998
Philadelphia's all-ages scene gets a grown-up club.
by Sara Sherr
NICHE MARKET: Mike Ransom and Molly Emmons, both 16, at XYZ.
photo: Adam Wallacavage
The XYZ Club is the kind of place where kids go to make their own entertainment when there isn't any to be found. The all-ages punk club sits on a lonely stretch of Route 130 between Pennsauken and Camden. After navigating the frustrating New Jersey circles, it's easy to miss it. From the outside, the white buildingwith "Equipment Service and Rental" painted on itcould pass for one of many auto parts shops that line the highway. From a billboard, a giant silhouette of the Marlboro Man looms above the club's tiny white neon arrow sign with its name scrawled in black.
Inside, it's a homey yet transitory cross between the garage where bands practice and the basement of a covert suburban house party.
A handful of high school age kids lounge on the couches covered in neon blankets that glow when the black lights go on at showtime. On the wall is a sign for Church's Chicken and graffiti that reads: "Notice to all patrons. XYZ is not responsible for bodily harm death self inflicted injurys Have a nice day." Above the stage, there are further instructions: "Stand still so you don't get hurt or destroyed."
On a typical night, you might see bands from area high schools like Point Blank or Skamakazi, familiar Philadelphia faces like Stinking Lizaveta or Town Managers, more well-known regional punk bands like Bigwig, or newcomers like Pokeweed from York, PA. Even though they come from the land of Live, there is no place for Pokeweed to play in their hometown since half of the members are under 21. On a recent Friday night, they drove two hours and brought a vanload of their friends and girlfriends to watch them play songs like "A is for Apathy" and "Happy Fucking Valentine's Day." The entourage sticks around for Town Managers, which includes Joe Gennaro of The Dead Milkmen, who probably spent a good chunk of the '80s in places like XYZ. It's a give-and-take moment that only happens in an alcohol-free environment like an all-ages show where the audience is there for the music and that's it. The kids from York hang onto every note, dance around, ignore the kid smashing into everyone, and buy up the band's singles at the end of the set.
"We feel that there's a niche market of people that believe in music and don't feel that it needs to be driven by alcohol," says Nick DiFalco, who runs the club with Pete Renzi. Both of them are 28 and spent their youth either going to shows or playing in bands like The Subverts. DiFalco, who describes XYZ as "a labor of love," says he wants to make his club a legitimate, reliable venue (as opposed to the fluctuating scenes at warehouses like Killtime, Fakehouse, Stalag 13 and The Astrocade, and rental spaces like the First Unitarian Church on 21st and Chestnut and the YWCA on 16th and Catharine. He originally wanted to be in Philadelphia but was voted out of a South Street location by the local business association. The South Street group said they didn't want any more live venues there. The only other option was a Northern Liberties warehouse where a local musician was about to be evicted. In New Jersey, their first spot was underneath a Bellmawr strip mall; DiFalco says that they got kicked out for "being enterprising youths." They've been in their current Route 130 home for three months and are trying for another three, even though Renzi admits it's a struggle to make the rent every month.
In Philadelphia it's a struggle to book all-ages shows not big enough for the Electric Factory, TLA or Trocadero. Besides the financial risk, there are tricky laws that prohibit the intermingling of innocent under-21s and boozing grown-ups. Unlike Philadelphia, other major cities get around this issue by giving out bracelets to those of age. As a result, the only small club that can pull off these logistics regularly is the Pontiac Grille, where Bryan Dilworth and Rich Fravel book anywhere from one to five all-ages shows a week. (The Khyber has also moved back into the fray as well.) But, for the most part, the Pontiac sticks with punk-pop, emo, or indie rock, or what Dilworth describes as "bands that promote a mellower lifestyle," because if there's one fight, that's the end of it. For this reason, nobody wants to touch hardcore or other confrontational music with a 10-foot pole. Besides that, in other genres there are are separate stars of the all-ages scene who are virtually unknown to those over 21, like The Promise Ring, Texas Is the Reason, Sensefield and locals like Franklin and Ink and Dagger (who are about to embark on a two-month European tour after playing the First Unitarian Church on Friday).
That's where 24-year-old Robby Redcheeks comes in. Like the Cabbage Collective, the Philadelphia Rebel Alliance (which includes Ink and Dagger's Sean McCabe and Don Devore, who's helped bands like Bluetip, Texas is the Reason, and the Promise Ring cross over into bars like Silk City and the Pontiac), R5 Productions (ska), Mike Supermodel (punk-pop), and countless others, he books the music he loves and bands that would normally pass over Philadelphia wherever and whenever he can. He started off at the First Unitarian Church two years ago and had to leave there because of too much fighting, some of it skinhead-provoked, and others within different factions of the scene. Redcheekswho took his last name from a high school tauntlikens the confrontations to a hip-hop show, where one nudge to and from the wrong person can escalate into the end of events at that venue. He says he got so fed up that he took time off from booking shows until he felt moved to start again. He rode his bike around town looking for the perfect venue, which he found at the YWCA at 16th and Catharine, where he's bringing H20 on Saturday. This time he's having better luck. "The scene's grown up," he says. "It's like a family. People will actually break up fights." For Redcheeks hardcore was an escape route and he wants to offer the same options to someone else: "I just want to give one kid a flyer for one of my shows and change his life."
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