The good news is that even though Connor Barwin is no longer an Eagle, the annual charity concerts the now-Los Angeles Ram defensive end has put on to benefit Philadelphia playgrounds through his Make the World Better foundation will continue.
The cool development is that this year’s show will mark the return of the War on Drugs, the Philadelphia five-piece band led by Adam Granduciel that stepped up to top-tier rock status with its acclaimed 2014 album, Lost in the Dream. Last weekend, the band released their first new music since signing to Atlantic Records with a shimmery, immersive 11-minute vinyl-only song called “Thinking of a Place.”
But maybe the best news for the city and its music scene is this: The Make the World Better benefit for Barwin on Sept. 21 will be the opening date of the War on Drugs' world tour, and it will take place at the Dell Music Center, the storied amphitheater that recently underwent a nearly $7 million renovation. Tickets go on sale via Ticketmaster at 10 a.m. Friday.
The Dell was built in 1930. Along with hosting such luminaries as Mahalia Jackson, Count Basie, and Ray Charles, it served as the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra until the space now known as the Mann Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1976 across the river in Fairmount Park.
For decades now, the Dell -- originally known as the Robin Hood Dell, named after a tavern close to the nearby Laurel Hill Cemetery -- has been home to an R&B and soul summer concert series that serves Philadelphia’s African American community. That is not about to change, with an eight-show season that this year begins July 6.
“It’s always going to be a venue that offers R&B and gospel,” says Susan Slawson, the former head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department who now volunteers with the Dell. “We’re not going to neglect that. But we want to open up the venue. We want rock bands; we want country bands. We want people to realize that this is a safe, beautiful venue that people from all over Philadelphia can come to.”
Enter Barwin, and his boundless enthusiasm.
Barwin’s three benefit concerts at Union Transfer, starting in 2014 with his good friend Kurt Vile, have raised in the neighborhood of $750,000. That’s if you count the at-least-half donated out of Barwin’s own pocket, says R5 Productions' Sean Agnew, who co-owns Union Transfer. The shows have funded work at the Ralph J. Brooks and Smith Playgrounds in South Philly, as well as the Waterloo in West Kensington. This year’s recipient will be announced at the War on Drugs show.
“I took a tour with Parks and Rec about three years ago,” says Barwin, 30, talking on the phone from Los Angeles. “And I was like, man! We raise money for Parks and Rec. Parks and Rec has this incredible amphitheater up in Strawberry Mansion that nobody knows about. That’s when I fell in love with the Dell and thought it would be a perfect place to have a show, on so many levels. It makes so much sense for everybody, for the city and for the bands.”
Barwin was in the midst of a busy week. The Detroit-born music geek's current favorites include Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, and Future Island’s The Far Field -- the first two of which he saw at this month's Coachella Festival.
“Full disclosure, that was kind of like my bachelor party this year,” he says. Barwin will marry longtime girlfriend Laura Buscher, a physician’s assistant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, in Upstate New York this weekend.
What Barwin didn’t know when he got smitten by the Dell is that Agnew and his partners at Bowery Presents had already met with then-Mayor Michael Nutter about bringing concerts to the venue.
“Traditionally, the venue has been programmed for black Philadelphia,” says Agnew. “Which is pretty unique and very valuable. But it’s dark most days in the summer.”
R5 came close to booking sizable indie acts, like Neutral Milk Hotel and Animal Collective, but wound up with “a series of just-misses.” No one had ever heard of the venue, and booking agents' first question was, “Who else has played there?”
That’s where the War on Drugs comes in. Ami Spishock, the band’s manager since 2010, grew up in Downingtown. But she had never heard of the Dell.
Barwin was ready to fix that. Spishock, who lives in New York, came to see Beirut, another band she manages, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in 2015.
“Connor came and picked me up at the Tower and drove me to the Dell. It was closed and locked and dark, and we were peering in through the locked gate."
He got the desired result, however. “I was totally inspired,” she says. “The other thing that happened that night was he took me to a couple of playgrounds in the city. The inner-city kids were playing basketball under the lights, and everybody was thanking him and ribbing about how he was playing that year. You see that, and you’ve got to want to help him in that effort. I didn’t hesitate.”
Slawson refers to the War on Drugs as “this wonderful group” and Barwin as “like your brother. He's the kind of person who’s comfortable in whatever neighborhood you put him in, and he really wants to make a difference.” She and Agnew hope the War on Drugs' example will lead to others playing the venue, and a diversified lineup in 2018.
The Dell's larger capacity will allow Make the World Better to raise more than at the 1,200-capacity Union Transfer. Barwin is bummed that he’ll have to miss the show, though: Usually, his shows are in the football offseason, but this one needs to fit into the War on Drugs' tour cycle, which most likely will follow the release of the follow-up to Dream.
“I didn't know I wasn't going to be playing for the Eagles," he said. "It would have been perfect if I was. It’s the Thursday before the first home game. All of my teammates would have been there.”
But although Barwin is now a Ram -- and reunited with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, with whom he thrived with the Houston Texans early in his career -- he has no plans to cut ties to Philadelphia. Last week, he was looking for a place to live in L.A., and, having sold his Center City house, looking to buy another one in Philadelphia. “My wife loves it. It’s a place we’re always going to have roots,” he says.
While in L.A. on a one-year contract, he’ll get to know the local community, with an eye to expand Make the World Better, “and then if I re-sign, I’ll be ready to roll.” In any case, “we want [Make the World Better] eventually to be an organization that helps cities and parks and rec departments throughout the country.”
But can he also maintain the level of involvement in the Philadelphia community that’s made him so popular and already so missed? “The plan is to do everything we’re doing in Philly and do more,” he says.
Does that mean that after this year’s concert with the War on Drugs, there will definitely be more Make the World Better benefits?
He answers with a question: “Are there more playgrounds to be fixed?”