Bill Graham was a foundering business major in San Francisco when he discovered his true calling as a concert promoter. It was 1966, just as the counterculture was taking center stage in America's consciousness, and his first show paired Jefferson Airplane and the anarchist poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Graham provided them with the perfect venue, a faded jazz ballroom called the Fillmore Auditorium. It would become the measure by which every rock-and-roll temple would be judged.
What a long strange trip it's been. This week, a descendant of that rock touchstone debuted on the Delaware waterfront in Fishtown, reincarnated by the music conglomerate Live Nation, which has owned Graham's brand since 1997. Live Nation broke in the Fillmore Philadelphia on Thursday night with homeboy favorites Hall & Oates, a sensation from the early '80s.
The sprawling $32 million Fillmore is exactly the kind of love child you would expect from a Live Nation-Graham pairing, an uptown girl slumming in a downtown joint. Housed in the century-old Ajax Metal foundry just off Delaware Avenue, the Fillmore is essentially a tribute venue that trades on our memories (increasingly fuzzy) of the wild-haired '60s, but that is careful to provide the upscale amenities we've come to expect in 2015.
Like all rock tributes, Live Nation's new venue cannily taps the music's classic imagery to appeal to millennials who hunger for authenticity, or the appearance of it. The designers at the newest Fillmore - the seventh under the Live Nation umbrella - set the mood with a flower-power-treated VW bus, black-light murals, and chandeliers evoking the ones Graham (who died in 1991) inherited at his original Fillmore.
But don't worry, this is not the kind of joint perfumed with the aroma of stale beer and who knows what else. You can hardly go 10 feet without encountering a sleek bar, done up in a factory-chic style and softly lighted with dangling, industrial bulbs. The food is by Wolfgang Puck.
In the main concert space - a square, two-tier room that holds 2,500 - you can watch the acts from the comfort of private boxes that design director John Ahrens plans to furnish with plush red armchairs and ottomans. Live Nation, he adds, is hoping to sell season passes for these luxury boxes, as in sports arenas.
Should you insist on standing, there is a springy wood dance floor. No one will be more than 120 feet from the stage, and Live Nation says the state-of-the-art audio system has been designed so the music will sound perfect wherever you are. After a visit to the restrooms, you might think you had mistakenly wandered into the Kimmel Center.
There is also a second space, the Foundry, that can squeeze in 400 fans. Live Nation variously describes it as an after-show VIP room and a club for launching lesser-known acts. Philadelphia already has plenty of great small music clubs, from nearby Johnny Brendas to the Live Nation-owned TLA. Some in the business say that the market is nearly saturated and that there aren't enough worthy acts to fill 2,500 spots in the main space.
The Fillmore is certainly not the first to aim for an affluent clientele. A decade ago, when Hal Real opened the 350-seat World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia, it seemed the rock venue had gone about as upmarket as the form would allow. But the spaces there ended up with a generic, Starbucks vibe. At the Fillmore, Live Nation's design maintains the fantasy that you've come to an abandoned factory for an underground rave.
It's impossible to tell the real from the fake. Authentically old graffiti slashes across the raw brick interior walls, but the Ajax Metal Co. and Fillmore ghost signs in the lobby are new. The battered steel fire doors and the weathered wood on the bars were reclaimed from the Ajax foundry, which produced highly efficient electric furnaces for smelting brass until it shut down in 1971.
For years, Live Nation toyed with the idea of opening a music hall in another historic building, Chestnut Street's Boyd Theater. Partly because that project languished so long, the gorgeous Art Deco building ended up being sold and then demolished. Tragic as that result was, this Fillmore promises to have profound impact of a different sort, infusing energy into the lonely Delaware waterfront.
The sprawling Ajax foundry once stood amid a belching, industrial corridor. Cut off from the neighborhood by an elevated section of I-95, it languished for years as a warehouse, bounded by narrow, crooked Allen Street and other tumbledown factories. When Ajax was finally rediscovered in 2009 by developer Michael Samschick of Core Realty, it still felt appealingly lost in time.
Samschick, who owns more than 10 blocks of waterfront property, is busily turning the Ajax complex into a massive entertainment center with the Fillmore as its anchor. Construction workers are finishing up a Bluecoat distillery that will host tastings, a massive bowling alley that will include virtual golf greens, and a Live Nation-run comedy club. Plans call for an Italian bistro facing Delaware Avenue, overlooking the not-so-picturesque SugarHouse Casino.
All those attractions on Philadelphia's underperforming waterfront, Samschick believes, "will open a new chapter" for the Delaware. "Philadelphia gets 38 million visitors a year, and almost none go to the waterfront," he observes. Fishtown, already an edgy destination, is likely to draw even more visitors.
The Ajax location, on the inland side of Delaware Avenue, allows the project to trade on the waterfront yet be part of the neighborhood. In fact, the Piazza at Schmidts is just two blocks away. Samschick plans to convert several old factories on Richmond Street to apartments, which would help tie the project back into Fishtown.
Not surprisingly, residents pressed him to increase the amount of parking, even though the Market-Frankford El is an easy walk and the Fillmore expects an Uber-using crowd. The bigger concern is that there won't be enough bike parking. Samschick has requested an Indego bike-share station for the complex - a smart move.
Erin Clancey, who curated an exhibition on Bill Graham that's now at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center, isn't surprised the new Fillmore would emerge in such a deluxe form. Graham, she says, was a great businessman and a micromanager who cared about the whole concert experience. In that way, the new Ajax complex may just be faithful to his memory.