Chris Ward's top five Johnny Brenda's memories, 2007-2019 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Over the course of his 12+ years at Johnny Brenda’s, Chris Ward has seen a lot. For his final week on the job, we had an indepth conversation with him and his successor Barrett Lindgren (read it here) and we also asked him to share some of his favorite JBs memories: the gigs, the happenings, the people that made the biggest impact. Here’s what he emailed us (with the snail-shaped page-breaks intact).

I remember receiving an email at 2am on a weekday with the subject that read “Thundercat @ JBs” while I was sitting on my couch watching TV decompressing from a long day.  I immediately grabbed my laptop and and wrote back to the agent “a million times yes” and sent in my offer within 15 minutes. A few weeks later, the show was confirmed and I honestly leapt for joy.  It’s rare that something that important happens that smoothly within the music business. Fast forward to the night of the show, I made a point to head into the main part of the venue rather than be on the sides where I usually watch shows at Johnny Brendas.  It was so rewarding to see an artist that meant so much to me personally grace our stage. His show was magical; he brought to life his music with such a grace and ease that I was in awe for the entire set. The venue was buzzing after the show and I distinctly remember people not heading for the exits, but rather staying in place.  I imagined they were stationary like myself to try and preserve as much of what had just transpired in that room. 

Meredith Fraser from Panache Booking emailed to introduce me to her new artist, Aldous Harding, and to see if we could work together to bring her to Philadelphia.  The majority of my job as the booker at Johnny Brenda’s is to bring artists to Philly who the public has never heard of and that usually means someone I’ve never heard of.  Not knowing an artist’s music usually fires the part of my brain that critically tries to analyze the artist and their potential marketability vis a vis Johnny Brenda’s, Philly as a music market, etc.  Essentially, I’m trying to quantify that which is nearly impossible while also trying to ascertain if I like the music. However, from time to time, the unquantifiable magic of music would be so strong that I was overcome and then I would just sit at my desk and close my eyes and lose myself within the music.  This was exactly what happened when I received the email regarding Aldous. Her music was beyond categorization; it was so truly unique that it knocked me over like a ton of bricks. Once I was able to pick myself back up, I immediately wanted to book this show and went to work securing a show for Aldous.  

The other part that I reflect back upon when I think about booking Aldous Harding is what a great honor it is for me to book an artist’s inaugural show.  That honor of introducing someone to your city that you love so dearly is one of the most cherished parts of the job for me. The agent is entrusting you to properly tell the city: this person you may have never heard of deserves your attention and you should come see them.  And guess what? You all listened, and her first show was a success. And then, she came back and sold the room out! Fingers crossed she comes back for a multi-night stay in the future and I can’t wait to be there in the crowd with all of you lovely people in Philadelphia who support these magical artists.  

In 2013, Paul and William, the owners of Johnny Brenda’s closed for a day and took all the staff on a camping trip in South Jersey.  Working at a restaurant/bar/concert venue that is open 7 days a week and around 15 hours per day means it’s rare that everyone can be together in one setting outside of a holiday party.  We kayaked, shot BB guns, hung out around the fire, played music, and all in all just got to be in a peaceful environment with each other for an extended amount of time. Something my partner Maggie has always so wisely said is that being in the service industry means you help facilitate and ultimately host people’s best nights.  Whether it is a first date, a family celebration, or seeing one of your all-time favorite artists, we are there to help facilitate that experience. What I loved about this trip was that the owners took it upon themselves to do the same thing for all of their staff. We all got to have a wonderful time together because the owners hosted us and provided a space for us to have that experience. What I take away from this trip and ultimately working at Johnny Brenda’s is that level of intentionality and dedication to the job but most importantly to each other.  

Before I was booking bands, I was playing in them.  My band, Pattern is Movement, toured a lot and I needed a flexible job which I could leave for weeks at a time and come back to it.  For me, that flexible job would be mixing shows at clubs, aka FOH (front of house) engineer. I started out at Doc Watson’s and graduated to pretty much every other small room in Philly (e.g The Pontiac, Khyber, North Star Bar, The Manhattan Room).  In late 2007, I started getting shifts at Johnny Brenda’s and by 2008 I was in the regular rotation. In May of 2008, I got my schedule and on it was a very special show with local heroes Dr. Dog. The show was going to be huge, as the band was on a strong upswing and they could definitely sell more than we could hold.  It was also going to be an important show for me as well because this would be the biggest show to date I had mixed and I was every bit of excited as I was nervous. Come show day, the soundcheck was smooth and the vibes in the room were great. There were a few openers on the show and by the time The Dog took the stage, the place was ready to explode.  Once we got a few songs in, I forced my way into the crowd and closed my eyes and listened intently and was quite happy with the mix. I went back to the mixing desk and got to sit back and enjoy the rest of the concert.  

When I was young, I wanted to be a DJ but I didn’t have the gear or the know-how.  Fast forward to 2009 and somehow I’m DJ-ing New Year’s Eve at Johnny Brenda’s. I was lucky enough to be asked by my pal Brian Dwyer to DJ alongside him and he truly was a perfect partner.  The arrangement we had for the night was to trade each song back and forth. I’d play one or maybe two songs and then he’d respond and we’d keep trading all night long. Looking back on that arrangement, I now see that it was the very ingredient that cemented my love for DJing.  The idea of finding a thread amongst disparate songs became an exercise in listening that helped me develop a much better ear for curating a setlist. About a year later, I would end up DJing on the regular at Johnny Brenda’s which would ultimately lead me to DJ regularly for the last 9 years and then start my own wedding DJ business.  Thanks to my partner, Maggie, I named my DJ business The Other Wedding DJ, which I firmly believe got its inspiration from that New Year’s Eve back in 2009 with Brian.  

Chris Ward and Eric Slick mixing it up on the turntables at JBs | via Instagram
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