The Menzingers at the First Unitarian Church | Photo By: Rachel Del Sordo

As the room responsible for launching the Philly career of any number of musicians – Arcade Fire, Mates of State, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock, The Menzingers, and so on – as well as the career of R5 Productions itself – it’s a space they’ve booked since 1996 – there’s a lingering sadness with today’s email announcement that the promoters are pulling out (for the most part) of booking basement shows at center city’s First Unitarian Church.

The run of concerts through late December – including King Tuff on October 7th, Dads on October 23rd and Restorations’ album release party on November 15th – will be their last hurrah in this room, though they will continue to present unique intimate performances in the Sanctuary and Side Chapel. In addition, the basement may be used here and there for weekend shows only.

As R5’s Sean Agnew explained in the email, the decision came as more of his shows have been staged elsewhere in Philly:

In the last few years, we have been fortunate enough to open two dedicated venues, Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle. With these new venues and a slew of other that have opened up around Philadelphia, it’s become increasingly difficult to book bands who want to play the church. The church heavily relied on our rental income for the basement hall and since we were no longer using the space as frequently as we have in the past, they understandably had to find a more permanent tenant.

In a few weeks an after school group will begin to use the basement hall which will make our ability to host shows on weeknights extremely difficult. We still plan/hope to do shows on Saturdays and Sundays moving forward. We realize that limiting ourselves to just two days, there won’t be many opportunities to present future shows in our favorite venue.

Agnew tells us that R5 will likely book “a small handful of shows on the weekends when it makes sense. Like for a local bands record release or smaller punk bands. But this will be the last consistent run of shows for sure.”

As savvy live music fans in Philly know, this is announcement is something of a long time coming, ever since Union Transfer opened. And it makes sense that both crowds and artists would gravitate towards these other venues in Philly. While R5 and their production crew did an admirable job of transforming the church basement into a room that felt and sounded like a professional space, it was still just that – a basement. A room with no spotlights, no air conditioning (rickety ceiling fans tho), a short stage that was meant for holiday pageants and talent shows from the church community moreso than touring professional musicians. From the crowd, the sightlines were rough unless you were right up front, or squeezed the stairs flanking the rear of the room. The sound was almost always immaculate, although getting clocked by a crowd surfer’s boot or slipping on a discarded beer can was always a danger.

But crowds at the Church were (generally) okay with this – it’s what you went there for, an experience that was not fancied up, no-frills. Something honest, authentic and DIY. And from the artist end, this provided a vital oasis in the drudgery of touring – an all-ages room that was the right fit when you’re too big to play the 150-cap Johnny Brenda’ses of the world, but haven’t yet graduated to Trocadero status. More importantly, a room where the promoters treated you exceptionally well; R5 has a reputation for tremendous artist hospitality, something that I’ve heard echoed in interviews with artists like Bright Eyes and Rainer Maria (the latter of whom played something like 12 shows at the Church over their late-90s to mid-aughties run, and once told me that Agnew and his team are what kept them coming back). It’s a space that will be hard to replicate as the Philly scene moves forward.

The parting of ways (with the exception, of course, of those sanctuary and chapel shows…and I’m excited to hear what’s in the pipleline with them) comes with fondness rather than animosity. “The church has been and continues to be an amazing partner to work with for almost twenty years,” writes Agnew. “What other church would ever let a group called Pig Destroyer play a five days before Christmas? We are forever in debt to them.”

Below, watch some videos from the Church from over the years, and read the schedule of R5’s Final Run at the Church.

Sun 09/21
White Fang

Tue 10/07
King Tuff
Cassie Ramone

Fri 10/10

Sat 10/11
You Blew It!, Hostage Calm, True Love

Wed 10/15
Com Truise

Tue 10/21
Ninos Du Brasil, Anxiety Hammer

Thu 10/23
Tiny Moving Parts, Nai Harvest

Sat 10/25
Tim Barry, War On Women, Unwed, Pulling Punches

Wed 10/29
David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet
David Dondero

Sat 11/01
This Will Destroy You
Future Death, Silent Land Time Machine

Sun 11/02
Emma Ruth Rundle, Mylets

Fri 11/07
The Dismemberment Plan

Wed 11/12
The Rural Alberta Advantage
July Talk

Sat 11/15
Restorations (Record Release Show!)
Cayetana, Three Man Cannon, Hurry

Sat 12/20
Pig Destroyer
Dropdead, Fight Amp, UltraMantis Black