Toward the end of their concert in Philadelphia this month, First Aid Kit addressed the crowd: "We want to try an experiment."
For the past hour, Klara and Johanna Soderberg, the two Swedish sisters who make up the band, had been performing the kind of music that can be best summed up with the word "lovely." It is Americana by way of Stockholm, pretty ballads and melancholy anecdotes sung in two frail, harmonious voices over quivering basslines.
The duo was playing Union Transfer, a cavernous former rail baggage depot and my second stop on a visit to Philly's abundantly rich music scene. The trip had been prompted by the latest live music venue, Xfinity Live, the new Power Plant Live-esque mixed-use emporium by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.
Open for a little over two weeks, it is Cordish's acknowledgment of Philadelphia as a city with a musical heritage that stretches to Colonial times, a loud, relentless, let's-hit-three-shows-in-one-night music town.
Union Transfer was crammed with people, and each one of them hung on the sisters' every word. When they proposed an experiment, it felt as if the whole concert hall leaned in to hear a secret.
The sisters, who had been standing a few feet apart, one before her keyboard, the other with her guitar, left their microphones and met at the center of the stage. We want you all to be quiet, one of them said. They wanted to sing a cappella and depend strictly on the acoustics of the place to carry their voices. When a hush fell on the place, and the sisters began singing "Ghost Town," it was an unnervingly communal moment, one where the audience was as responsible for a song as the artists who'd produced it.
First Aid Kit is hugely popular in their native Sweden. But abroad, they're unknowns. I hadn't heard of these girls, and it's likely a lot of other dweebs like me hadn't either, and yet Union Transfer was brimming with people.
To my surprise, so were the other live music venues in Philadelphia I hopped to later that night, each one catering to a different sound, and each one with its own faithful constituency. There were dance-hall fans at Barbary, hip-hop scenesters at Kung Fu Necktie ... and then there was Xfinity Live.
Xfinity Live, my first stop, is a trek, far from downtown Philadelphia. Though sandwiched by Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, and Wells Fargo Center, where the 76ers and the Flyers play, the buildings are far from each other, separated by vast parking lots and industrial zones. The walk from the subway station is so long it recalls those long excursions in Orlando, Fla., from parking lots to the theme parks.
Maybe that's appropriate, because Xfinity is a kind of theme park, a temple to indoor sports-watching that revolves around one loud and flashy atrium, a cacophonous thunderdome that swells with the noise of ESPN and hundreds of people cheering.
At the center of it all is an Olympic jumbotron that broadcasts sports games — that Saturday night, it was an NCAA semifinal game, Louisville vs. Kentucky — and dominates the room like the spaceship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Upon walking in, everyone had their heads craned up to the screen, hypnotized by the game, or maybe just by the glare of such a giant TV screen.
Every restaurant and bar in the joint revolves around this atrium, and so it is the center of attention and a gathering place, where everyone inevitably ends up.
The noise, so deafening you can barely hear yourself think, is not the only thing that overwhelms at Xfinity. The venue is an attack on all senses. There are logos — for Comcast Sportsnet, Pepsi , NBC Sports, 1-800-Gambler — screaming from every corner; TV screens, big, small, gigantic, flashing everywhere; streams of people lurching from one corner to the next; and from outside, the blare of muscular rock music.
There's an apocalyptic, disorganized madness at this place that will be familiar to anyone who's been to Preakness, when Pimlico Race Course takes on the look of a mobbed arcade.
Cordish has several venues like this one around the country — in St. Louis and Kansas City, and of course, Power Plant Live in Baltimore — but Xfinity is unusual because it's mostly indoors. From its central pinball machine-like atrium, guests can be bounced and kicked into any of the surrounding restaurants and bars, like Spectrum Grill and Victory Beer Hall, a restaurant with long banquet tables that was helped by the namesake beers of the Pennsylvania craft brewer.
Live musical performances are suggested by the venue's name, but that is misleading; they are mainly an afterthought here. Whereas the new outdoor stage is at the center of the Power Plant complex — something everyone, those eating pizza on the first level, on the balconies, strolling in the Inner Harbor, can listen to — at Xfinity, the outdoor stage is a side attraction. Squeezed between the patios of Victory Beer Hall and PBR Bar & Grill, it sits neglected, with most people favoring the atrium. It's also highly uninviting, with just one understaffed bar and beer kiosk and surrounded by the parking lots of Xfinity and its neighboring sports complexes. When you're watching a band, you have the beautiful sight of cars on one side and more cars on the other.
At Power Plant, Cordish has benefited from Rams Head Group and its partnership with Bethesda-based promoter I.M.P., bringing major acts to Rams Head Live. At Xfinity, bands — Mid-Atlantic acts like Mr. Greengenes, Strange as Angels — played to sparse crowds the Saturday night after Xfinity's opening. It might be because they're regional acts, or it might be because this is a venue that puts a premium on another kind of live – live television.
Xfinity Live is an anomaly in Philly, where most music venues come in two shapes: shoebox and slightly larger. Marquee acts like Madonna and Van Halen still play the Wells Fargo Center, and Tower Theater and Electric Factory can each accommodate over 2,000 people. But around the Fishtown neighborhood, there's a glut of tiny venues — the Barbary, Johnny Brenda's, Kung Fu Necktie — where emerging acts like Titus Andronicus and Cults play when they're passing through town.
Union Transfer, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Callowhill, is a compromise, with a 1,000-person capacity. With its high ceilings, powerful acoustics and atmospheric lighting, it was a fitting venue to watch a couple of Swedish sisters channel moody American folk music. Packed as it was, with people crushing into its horseshoe balconies, few moved as the Klara and Johanna harmonized. Everyone stood still, so that even before the two sang "Ghost Town," the venue had a sobering quality to it, like a cathedral.
At Kung Fu Necktie, a 20-minute walk away, the mood could not have been more different. Cramped and dingy, with a bar at the front, and a minuscule stage in the back, the Fishtown venue is all frivolity and kitsch. A big angelic portrait of Tupac Shakur hung near the stage, which was draped by a secondhand red curtain and decorated with some cheap, plastic skulls. A solitary disco ball hung above the tiny dance floor. Performing Saturday night was a hip-hop duo, Sgt. Sass, who bill themselves as gay equivalents of Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim. Though there were fewer than 50 people in front of them, DeShawn Seymore and DaQuan Motley played the room with all the energy and fierce bravado of arena headliners.
On my way to the Barbary, which was hosting the Queens-born singer/producer Party Supplies, I passed by a packed Johnny Brenda's and a bar named Barcade, which gets its name from the scores of arcade machines inside. But by the time I got to the Barbary, an authentic shoebox of a bar, it was overflowing with people, they way it is every time I've been to Philadelphia.
So I headed back to play Tetris at Barcade. Housed in what looked like a renovated warehouse, it was jammed with people sipping beers to a steady soundtrack of Joy Division and the Romantics and the trill coming from Ms. Pac-Man and Gauntlet machines.
While Xfinity Live embraced the worst aspects of an arcade, here they took away the loud noises and obnoxious players and kept what's enjoyable: the games. It was the first time since I was a teenager that I finished a weekend night doing battle with an arcade machine. Only this time, I had a beer in my hand.
If you go Philadelphia Music Venues
Xfinity Live, 1100 Pattison Ave., 215-609-1600, xfinitylive.com. This bar, restaurant and music complex includes restaurants Spectrum Grill, Broad Street Bullies Pub, Victory Beer Hall, the NBC Sports Arena, PBR Bar & Grill, and an outdoor stage. It is open 11 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., 215-232-2100, utphilly.com. Live music venue.
Kung Fu Necktie,1248 N. Front St., 215-291-4919, kungfunecktie.com. Bar and live music venue. Open daily, 5 p.m- 2 a.m.
Barcade, 1114 Frankford Ave., 215-634-4400, barcadephiladelphia.com. Open daily, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., and open as early as noon on weekend nights.
The Comfort Inn, 100 N. Chris. Columbus Blvd., 215-627-7900, comfortinn.com. This is one of the more affordable hotels in the downtown/Old Town area, though it is separated from downtown by the Delaware Expressway. In April, rooms start at $149 per night.
Travel between Baltimore and Philadelphia is cheapest by bus and train. Megabus tickets can be as low as $11, and Amtrak tickets start at $44.
Philadelphia is part of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Authority, which includes buses, subway, and regional trail. Tokens for one-way rides cost $1.55 and can be bought at any SEPTA stations.
For other tourist destinations, check out visitphilly.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun