Farewell, Trocadero: Remembering the famed Philly venue in 20 concerts
If your social media timeline was anything like mine, last night it was filled with photos of ticket stubs and memories of the fabled Chinatown club The Trocadero, in the wake of reports that the venue is closing this month.
Though The Troc itself has yet to make any kind of official announcement or statement on the matter, it certainly seems as though its tenure in Philadelphia is ending; fewer and fewer concerts have been showing up on the calendar of its 1000-capacity main room, and its schedule since the beginning of 2019 has been filled with cancelled, postponed, or moved-to-other-venue shows.
In his report yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dan DeLuca neatly summarized the venue’s woes: “In recent years, the Troc has struggled to find a niche in a Philadelphia-area club scene full up with many similar-size rooms such as the Theater of Living Arts, World Cafe Live, and Union Transfer.” The venue — a former vaudeville theater and burlesque house that dates back to the 1870s — filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and has long faced costly upkeep bills. (Several of the Troc memories I read on social media involved flakes of plaster from the ceiling raining on the crowd.)
At the same time, it would be difficult to overstate the significance the venue had to the Philadelphia music scene in the 80s and 90s, particularly during the post alternative-rock era. Beck played his first Troc show in 1994. Bjork and Aphex Twin shared its stage in 1995. Belle and Sebastian were famously no-shows at a concert in 1998, and the gig has gone on to be the stuff of legend.
The Troc was the first time I saw one of my favorite artists in a room small enough to make eye contact with them. It was the first time I realized that the sensation of “danger” that sheltered suburban life gives you of seeing rock shows in the city was, honestly, mostly in good fun. The aggro bouncers wore “TROC CREW / FUCK YOU” shirts; members of the audience retorted, wearing “FUCK YOU, TROC CREW” shirts. I saw countless goth/industrial shows there in the late 90s, and a salty box office clerk once questioned my taste and credibility for buying a Gravity Kills ticket while wearing a Front Line Assembly t-shirt. (He was right, but he was also kind of a dick.) During my numetal phase in the early aughts, I saw Taproot frontman Stephen Richards climb the speakers to the balcony, shimmy around to rear center, and scream as he leapt off and onto the outstretched arms of the audience, a la Eddie Vedder in the “Even Flow” video. Say what you will about the genre or that era in music, it was a pretty awesome moment.
The attitude of the venue and the attitude of the city in that window of time went hand in hand, to the point where Jack White threw a minor temper tantrum when The White Stripes played in 2002 and the audience was not losing its collective mind and bowing down to his genius or whatever. He had his road crew bring out a long mirror from the green room, hold it up to crowd and say “See that? Take a good look at yourselves. You sure paid a lot of money to just stand there. Give yourselves a round of applause.” I’m reasonably sure this was the beginning of White’s petty feud with Philly.
In his report, DeLuca spoke with promoter Dave Kisleiko, who said that the loss of the Troc is a loss for independent music in Philly:
Every room bigger than something like a 600-person capacity is now controlled by Live Nation or AEG/Bowery. They’ll let me in their rooms to host shows from time to time, but at a premium. Losing the Trocadero limits the scaling of small businesses like mine.
While the future of The Troc remains uncertain, it is certainly possible that somebody musically-minded could move in and turn it in to something that fills that void. It’s also possible that the building sits dormant, collecting dust at the corner of 10th and Arch. Or it could find a new life as something not musical at all.
The Trocadero is, in many ways, a relic of the past — an antique building, an antique business model, an antique music industry that is increasingly less friendly to non-corporate players. And while the spirit of its past may once again find relevance somewhere down the line, today we celebrate it as it was, in all its rough and rowdy glory. Here are 20 audio and video recordings capturing the magic of The Trocadero from over the years.
The Dead Milkmen‘s Chaos Rules: Live at the Trocadero recorded at two concerts in 1992 and 1994. The band’s final show with its original lineup happened in 1994 at The Troc, and its first reunion show, (in 2004, to honor the memory of late bassist Dave Blood) happened in 2004.
In the wake of the 1994 success of Chocolate and Cheese, Ween played The Troc and you can hear them enthusing about their families being at the show before “Freedom of 76” begins.
Foo Fighters‘ second Philadelphia concert, first Philadelphia headliner, at The Troc in 1995. This was the fourth or fifth concert that teenage me ever went to, and the first I went to in a space this small; it blew my mind how close you could get to your favorite musicians at a venue like The Troc. In the case of this crowd, everybody was revved up and all about the slam dancing and stage diving. Dave was all about it at first, but a couple songs in — after his mic is kicked over and into his face on “I’ll Stick Around,” and you audibly hear him straining to finish the last chorus — he gives the crowd a crash course in gig etiquette. “I don’t care if you guys come up to dive and have fun. But if you want it to sound good, and you might not care, but if you want it to sound good, come up right there, go out right there, don’t fuck around. Come up, do your dive, and get off. And try not to step on anything, because then everyone else will have fun. Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
In 1997, Bob Dylan went on a small club tour in support of his Time Out Of Mind LP, which brought him to The Troc for two nights. These two recordings show the setlist balance of new songs with classics like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35.”
Historically speaking, metal has always been The Troc’s power alley. Here, you can see metal demigods Slayer play The Troc on their Seasons in the Abyss tour.
In the alt rock boom of the 90s, shows alternated between The Troc and the TLA; in 1992, Soundgarden played The Troc on the Badmotorfinger tour.
D.C. DIY icons Fugazi played The Troc several times over the course of their storied career; this video captures them on the Red Medicine tour in 1995.
Kim Shattuck and her SoCal power trio The Muffs visited The Troc in 1996, in between their Blonder and Blonder and Happy Birthday to Me LPs.
Pacific Northwest trio Sleater-Kinney played The Troc three times; here they are with Helium in 1998, on a tour that fell in between Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock.
The last two shows that West Coast singer-songwriter Elliott Smith played in Philadelphia were at The Troc. His spring 2003 was a mix of sparse solo and accompanied songs, while this show — from 2000, on the Figure 8 tour — featured a full band.
There’s a gap in unofficial concert documentation during the post-Napster, pre-smart phone decade, so let’s skip eight years here to the year 2008 and Philly rapper Reef the Lost Cauze performing his classic “The Sound of Philadelphia” live at The Troc.
How many Bouncing Souls shows happened at The Troc over the years? Do the Bouncing Souls even know? For a couple decades there, The Troc was the New Jersey punk rock faves’ quasi-official home when they came to Philly; this video captures the opening moments of their 20th anniversary show in 2009.
Perennial favorite indie rock jammers Built to Spill played The Troc in 2009 on their tour behind There Is No Enemy.
Though it is primarily known as a rock club, The Troc showcased hip-hop at various points in its history — in the 90s, The Goats were regulars there, while Black Thought of The Roots seems to give the venue a shoutout in the scat/beatboxed verse on “Essaywhuman?!!!??!” from 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!. In the aughts, the the venue began including more rap shows in its programming, including this ridiculous hit parade of Freeway, Meek Mill, Beanie Sigel, Young Chris, and Jakk Frost from 2010.
Staten Island legends Wu-Tang Clan also played The Troc in 2010, where this incredible performance of “C.R.E.A.M.” comes from; local crew Writtenhouse opened the gig, giving the whole throwing-up-your-W’s thing a dual meaning.
While her series of Body Talk EPs was rolling out between 2010 and 2011, Swedish pop star Robyn played Philadelphia three times. This incredible video of “Dancing On My Own” comes from the middle show, in early 2011, when she performed alongside Kelis.
Shot from the risen tier on the east-facing wall of the club, this video of Cypress Hill from 2012 shows how electric the energy in The Troc could be when the moment was right.
A recent favorite Troc moment involved Weezer playing their song “Go Away” with Frances Quinlan of Hop Along in 2014.
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar released the acclaimed, introspective To Pimp A Butterfly LP and didn’t quite feel up to taking it on a tour that would probably land somewhere between theaters and arenas. So he dubbed the run “Kunta’s Groove Sessions” after the song “King Kunta” (after Kunta Kinte from the seminal miniseries Roots) and played small clubs. The Philly stop sold out in seconds, was jam-packed, and lost power mid-way through. The audience started chanting the hook of “Alright” until the lights and sound came back on, and K-Dot made his way back on stage, conducting the crowd though the refrain of “We gon’ be allright.”
For many, their final memory of The Trocadero might be this February 2019 appearance from New Zealand indie band The Chills; a beautiful way to go, indeed.