I Call Dibs on The Tapestry: A eulogy for North Star Bar, where music has been declared over
You could see it coming for years now, but that doesn’t make it any less of a drag: Fairmount’s long-standing North Star Bar is closing for renovations this weekend, according to a report on Philly.com; when it re-opens, it will have a new name and won’t host live music anymore.
“With the area growing and changing and the ‘shaky’ nature of the music business it just doesn’t make sense,” reads a statement on the website. It also makes promises of an expanded restaurant with “even better food” and “more better beer.”
When I started covering music in Philadelphia 15 years ago, North Star was a regular hang. Alongside the storied Khyber Pass, it was one of two go-to indie rock spots in town, sort of like the Johnny Brenda’s and Boot and Saddle of their days. Of course there were other rooms – The Upstage, The Grape, The Pontiac, etc. – but those two had a particular vibe about them, uniquely-curated calendars and in the case of the North Star, tremendous ambiance. Those exposed brick walls and huge high ceiling, that ornate tapestry that hung behind the stage. That tapestry was the backdrop to so many photos I shot there, from a solo Frank Black gig to shots of East Hundred in 2008.
When Johnny Brenda’s opened its doors to live music in 2006, it caused a well-documented seismic ripple in Philly show-going habits. Almost immediately, the crowds thinned out and flocked to Fishtown, despite the North Star’s continuingly strong calendar. When I say strong, I’m thinking in particular of a 2007 gig The Mountain Goats played, or a packed-house Nightwatchman gig that same summer. More recently, DIIV and CRUISR (pictured) played some of their first Philly gigs there.
The Khyber stopped booking shows in 2009, and reopened as a restaurant not long after. A delicious, cozy, welcoming restaurant, but a restaurant all the same – hardly the music mecca it was. The North Star Bar stuck it out for another six years, and its decline as a music space has been a bit more difficult to watch. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a show there where more than 20 non-performing people made up the audience. At the last gig I attended there – New York dream-poppers Gold Lake on April 28th of this year – I was one of maybe three people that weren’t in a band on the bill.
I don’t say this to kick North Star when it’s down – truly I admire them for sticking it out as long as they did and doing what they could to keep it alive as a live music space. But the forces you could see working against them proved too great: the influx of new venues in Philly, the increasing costs of production, the changing demographic of the Fairmount neighborhood, which is now oriented less towards scuzzy rock and roll heads and more towards families with young kids who don’t do as much venturing out on the scene as they used to.
The moral of the story: change and evolution is inevitable in all ends of life, and it’s always around the bend. Your favorite bands, your favorite bars, your favorite places to see live music will all be gone one day, or they will be different, and it won’t be the same. Appreciate people and places and things (and all nouns for that matter) for what they are, and do it now, while they’re here – because one day we’ll be left only with what used to be there.