As the Tin Angel closes, a look back at 24 golden years

Larry Goldfarb, left, and Donal McCoy, right, at the Tin Angel.

Music venues come, music venues go. Rarely do they stick around for as long as the Tin Angel while playing an important role in sustaining a vibrant big-city music scene.

“We’ve been here for 24 years,” says Larry Goldfarb, the Old City acoustic listening room’s sole principal booker throughout its run. “4,850 shows!”

The first of those was put on by Camden County rocker Ben Vaughn, who broke in the second-floor railroad-car room in November 1992. The last to play the walk-up above Serrano restaurant will also be Vaughn, the wry songwriter and guitarist now based in the Mojave Desert in California. He closes the room with two sold-out shows on Feb. 4.

But will that be the absolute end of the Tin Angel brand? Owner Donal McCoy says no. He plans to reopen in a new location by next winter. Details of that slightly larger spot aren’t finalized. “For now,” McCoy said, “we’re concentrating on going out with as big of a bang as we can.”

In its nearly quarter-century, the intimate space with the 8-by-9-foot stage has hosted a long list of noteworthy names.

The performers thanked when the club celebrated its 20th anniversary began alphabetically with Mose Allison and ended with Rachael Yamagata. Now-deceased luminaries who took the tiny stage include Jeff Buckley, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Richie Havens (who appears in a mural on the wall), Kirsty MacColl, and Goldfarb favorite Gil Scott-Heron, who often didn’t show up for gigs until after the house was full but who always delivered in the end.

Neko Case, Patty Griffin, and Citizen Cope, who’s doing five sold-out shows starting Wednesday, played the room on the way up. LaVern Baker, Lesley Gore, Rick Danko, Donovan, Laura Nyro, and Ian McLagan (of Faces) are on Goldfarb’s Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers Tin list. Rosanne Cash, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Jonatha Brooke, and Madeleine Peyroux found a home at the tin-ceilinged room.

The Tin served as a proving ground for locals such as G. Love, the Low Road, John Legend (then a University of Pennsylvania student named John Stephens), Melody Gardot, and Amos Lee, one of many Philadelphia players who also worked at the club.

“It’s the little room that could,” says McCoy. The Northern Ireland-born publican bought  the 115-seat room and the restaurant below in 2005 from original owner Rich Macklin. “It has heart, it has vibe.”

The bearded barman with a Belfast brogue, 50, came to North America to complete work on a degree in social anthropology in the 1990s. He moved to Philadelphia after a summer “in this wonderful place called Wildwood, where the bars were open till 3 and the beer was practically free.”

“Some people say you can hear the music in the walls, and you kind of can,”  McCoy says of his club. “You can tell a lot of weird and wacky and really cool stuff happened here.”

On Friday, Philadelphia-bred rock band Marah began with a banjo and harmonica “Faraway You” in the middle of the crowd before relocating to the stage.

“It’s a great honor to come back and play here one last time,” singer Dave Bielanko said while his brother Serge joked about the venue being turned into a Fuddruckers. (Actually, it’s set to become a Peruvian restaurant.)   
                      
He remembered imperfect nights, including one when the roof caved in under the weight of rain. “This is the first place I learned that you could be entirely too drunk to play in public,” he said. “But there were some magical ones, too. It’s sad to lose this.”

“It was such a great room to play,” says Vaughn. “The moment you stepped on stage, you knew you were in for a night of true communication with the audience.” Top Tin memories include accidentally dropping his guitar midsong, which made “a horrible noise. After a few moments of stunned silence, the crowd gave me a standing ovation. Only in Philly!”

And when he sat at a front table for Nyro shortly before her death in 1997, Vaughn helped her adjust a foot pedal. “I touched Laura Nyro’s foot! Another example of an intimate moment that could only happen at the Tin Angel.”

“I loved the Tin Angel since the moment I first played there,” in 1994, says Wesley Stace, an Englishman transplanted to Philadelphia. He’ll team with Eric Bazilian of the Hooters on Feb. 1 for one last show in front of the February release of his album Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding.

Citing sound man George Pierson (who died in November) and successor Barb Adams, Stace calls it “a real listening room” and “a place of remarkable continuity. You know exactly what you’re getting, and that includes proper food from the restaurant below, which is also something to look forward to when you’re on the road.”

The Tin Angel is the last to go of the Second Street live-music strip that fueled Old City’s growth in the 1990s. Down the street, the grungy Khyber Pass Pub, now cleaned up as a craft-beer eatery, hosted Pavement and Liz Phair.  The adjacent Upstairs at Nick’s, which closed in 1999, also presented raucous fare, though McCoy recalls a John Entwistle poetry reading there.

Back then, the Tin’s hospitality-focused approach was ahead of the curve. New-music station WXPN-FM (88.5) funneled breaking singer-songwriters into the room, before the two World Cafe Live venues in West Philly opened in 2004. But with nightlife following Johnny Brenda’s north to Fishtown in recent years, the Tin has mostly relied on established acts like Steve Forbert, Hamell on Trial, and Dar Williams, who also returned for a final show this month.   

“We do what we can do,” says Goldfarb, 77, whose Philadelphia history dates back to booking Charles Mingus and Count Basie into the Walnut Street Theatre in the early 1970s. “We’re a stepping-stone for some people on the way up.  But we have a whole group of people for whom this room is fine and they really like it.”
                      
When the Tin Angel closes, Philadelphia will lose an intimate room “where people actually show up to hear the music and be in a comfortable seated space” in the city, says Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment, who books the Ardmore Music Hall and Philadelphia Folk Festival. “That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Philadelphia-proper market,” says Lundy, who will host a local-talent Farewell to the Tin Angel night on Jan. 31.

As cozy as it is, the room’s size can be a disadvantage. The challenge McCoy faces in moving to a larger space in a neighborhood north of Old City will be “keeping the intimacy of the small room while going after larger acts, as well. We want to have a nurturing aspect for local acts, while also going after bigger fish.”

McCoy has no doubt the new room will be open by the end of 2017, with the head shots that line the stairway and the murals making the trip.

“It’s about growth,” he says. “If this was the little room that could, it’s going to be the slightly larger room that will. It’s such an iconic Philadelphia institution, and it will go on. I’m not going to be the guy who kills the Tin Angel.”