Yowler, Kississippi, and Thin Lips will play a benefit for PhilaMOCA in March - WXPN
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Philly performing arts space PhilaMOCA has been working though tough times since late last summer, when the all-ages venue was shut down by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections during a record release show by local metal outfit Crypt Sermon. After months of fundraising and working with the city to upgrade the space, PhilaMOCA hopes to re-open this April, but needs a bit of a financial boost to get through the next few months — and some local artists are pitching in to help out.

On Friday, March 6th, the bands Yowler, Kississippi, and Thin Lips will play a benefit show for PhilaMOCA in the basement of the First Unitarian Church. Organized by the artists in conjunction with local independent promoters Home Outgrown and R5 Productions, money raised from the gig will help cover the costs of remaining electrical work at PhilaMOCA, as well as city fees, rent, and utilities.

When the space was shut down, the city’s objection was initially to the zoning. As venue manager Eric Bresler told WHYY’s Jake Blumgart last month, “They said, ‘you are zoned as an art gallery but this is a nightclub setting.’ I didn’t argue. Art has a broad definition and we’ve certainly exploited that over the years. We outgrew our art gallery zoning.”

After the shutdown in September, Bresler began working with L&I, the city government, and the neighbors to re-open PhilaMOCA. As he explains via phone, the venue’s gallery zoning was done in a way that it would be allowed to transition to nightclub zoning, once it was granted a special exception from the city, and that nightclub zoning comes with additional electrical and fireproofing requirements that need to be met. Bresler identified a list of upgrades needed at the space, which has been the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (a nod to its previous life as a tombstone showroom) since 2007, and he launched a Resurrect PhilaMOCA GoFundMe that was subsequently shared and supported by a spectrum of local and national musicians and performing artists, from corey flood and Hurry to Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick and San Francisco indie label Father Daughter Records. To date, the campaign has raised over $37,000.

Last month, PhilaMOCA won its special exception from Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment; it’s something that Bresler has, in his detailed updates to the Resurrect PhilaMOCA campaign, described as one of the major hurdles in the process, and one he was elated to clear. “We’re in the home stretch now,” Bresler wrote on January 15th, noting that the remaining requirements include finishing the fireproofing and electrical work — as well as obtaining the permits to do so — passing two inspections, and obtaining a special assembly permit from the city.

“I was so overwhelmed about the amount of money we fundraised, I’ve been trying to be as transparent as possible throughout this whole process,” Bresler said of his stream of updates. “Folks who donated deserve to know what we’re going through, and even if it is sometimes over my head, I’ve tried to translate it to the best of my ability.”

Thin Lips’ Kyle Pulley helped plan the March 6th fundraiser, along with Bresler and Home Outgrown’s Mel Grinberg and Alex Northrup. Pulley says he and his bandmates felt compelled to lend their support to the all-ages venue, especially in light of Everybody Hits closing last month.

“It felt all the more important to do what we could to save what we could,” says Pulley. “Having these all-ages spaces where bands can grow to find their audience is part of what makes Philly special, and if we keep losing these spaces where weirdos can do their thing, we’re going to start losing what makes Philly Philly. Not to mention the fact that coming to all ages shows as a teenager was such a transformative experience for me as a kid, and I want to do my part to help preserve that for the next generation.”

For local artists as well as touring musicians, getting a foothold on playing shows means starting out in small spaces, and often times in Philly, those spaces are 21+ bars. That translates to a limited audience and, depending on the venue, it could mean music being treated as secondary to business at the bar. PhilaMOCA has historically a space that was open, welcoming, and put arts in the forefront — whether it be film screenings and Q&As, or concerts.

“House shows are definitely important, too,” Pulley says. “But houses are always getting shut down, and at a certain point, there needs to be a step between playing a house show and playing bigger clubs.”

Bresler says his passion for keeping the space open and accessible to all ages comes from experience getting into alternative culture at an early age and needing an outlet to experience it before he turned 18 and then 21.

“When I first moved to Philly, I had to miss so many shows at Upstairs at Nicks,” Bresler remembers. “Bands I was dying to see, but couldn’t yet, and PhilaMOCA has always taken those exact types of bands and put them in an all-ages setting, allowing younger people to experience it.” 

Bresler called the process of working towards PhilaMOCA’s re-opening “at times a harrowing experience, but I’ve stuck with it because I love the room, and I love screening movies here, and I felt indebted to the city and to our longterm attendees and performers.”

The Resurrect PhilaMOCA benefit takes place Friday, March 6th at the First Unitarian Church; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Bresler and Pulley both encourage folks who cannot attend to consider donating to the GoFundMe campaign. For more on PhilaMOCA’s history in the Philly community, revisit The Key’s 2013 interview with Bresler spotlight the space on its five-year anniversary.

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