J.C. Dobbs returns - in a documentary

Posted: August 16, 2012

NEW YORK had Max's Kansas City and CBGB's. Los Angeles boasted the Roxy. Liverpool, England, had its Cavern Club.

Here in Philadelphia, the pre-eminent rock 'n' roll club for many moons was J.C. Dobbs, a long chute of a room and hangout on the "hippest street in town," a/k/a lower South Street.

Hot and happening from 1975 to 1996, Dobbs was the place where local heroes such as Wilmington's George Thorogood and Robert Hazard were discovered, where bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Oasis, Green Day and Rage Against the Machine kick-started a buzz, and solo talents like Sarah McLachlan and Beck first faced and conquered a Philly contingent. And it's also a place that respected elders - from Bo Diddley to Brooklyn, N.Y., doo-wop/blues innovator Dion.

Dobbs was "really a bohemian kind of place, a one-of-a-kind place with an unusual family vibe," recalled George Manney, the musician and documentary filmmaker who's cataloged the memories with the recent documentary "Meet Me on South Street: The Story of J.C. Dobbs." After screenings (and winning awards) at several indie film festivals last year, the documentary will finally get to rock out here Thursday night. And where better than at the current club in the same 304 South St. location, the renamed and spruced-up Legendary Dobbs.

Manney's homage is definitely of the "good old daze" persuasion, a history lesson celebrating the evolution of Philly's music and art subculture from the '70s forward.

But Thursday night's film premiere is being slotted as the opening event for the Liberty Music Festival - an indie talent showcase and gab fest at the Legendary Dobbs promising "four days of showcases, screenings, educational panels, vendors and workshops" devoted to the present and the future, not the past. You may never have heard of the groups that the organizing team (Jim Thorpe, Brian Cronin, Vince Volz) have on tap - Deadbeats Inc., Glim Dropper, Dynasty Electric, the Parachuting Apostles, Revel 9, the Parsnip Revolt and a big bunch more. Frankly, neither have I.

The same could be said for some of the talent I first tripped over and learned to love inside the smoky confines of J.C. Dobbs, though, once I managed to push past the biker buddha guardian of the gates known as Sheamus.

It was easy to trip over Delaware blues destroyer George Thorogood, prominently featured in Manney's documentary, because he made it his mission to play Dobbs as often as he could - dozens of times in his formative years. When playing a multinighter, Thorogood would sleep on Dobbs' second floor. And even after he could sell out the place, Thorogood refused to take more than $200 a night, he recalled. His bargaining chip: "We'd just ask for another gig. We needed to hone our act."

Another great band born at Dobbs was the Stray Cats. Except, when they played the room, often on Sunday nights in the early '80s, Brian Setzer and the first iteration of his rockabilly trio howled as the Tom Cats. They were actually a side project for Bloodless Pharaohs, in which Setzer played across town as house band/opening act at the Hot Club. I wish I could say that Philly (or I) made them stars. It took moving across the pond to England (where the kids never stopped adoring 1950s American rockabilly) to make them famous.

Always a big fan of singer-songwriters, I took heart when Dobbs embraced the Indigo Girls, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and especially Robyn Hitchcock, a torchbearer for British psychedelic folk who sometimes sang/snarled (and still does) like the reincarnation of John Lennon in his headiest, acid-tinged period. Even more so than Lennon's son Sean (who also played the Dobbs). Or the hippie dream popsters Aleka's Attic, fronted by River Phoenix and his sister Rain, who hit the place on Feb. 15, 1989.

Can't say I was all that impressed by the music or even that River had just been nominated the same day for an Academy Award for his role in "Running on Empty." But watching the movie star double as his own roadie, shyly lugging heavy amps into and out of the club - that stayed with me.

A big part of J.C. Dobbs' success was its oddball nature and generous, collective heart, which is underscored in the documentary. People would hang there (day as well as night) just because the vibe was welcoming and eccentric; it didn't matter who was on the bill.

The Dobbs stage was almost an afterthought, built around a bricked-over support column that divided the playing areas into left and right sections. "It's the only place where the Gallagher brothers," from Oasis, "ever played and sang on opposite sides of the stage," recalled Manney.

Dobbs' talent bookers, Kathy James and Tom Sheehy, during its hottest era, were great about letting artists do their own thing. One of the wildest was the night in 1989 when local singer/strummer Kenn Kweder (still a Philly nightlife staple) lived out his fantasy as Elvis Presley. A giant klieg light pierced the South Street sky and bounced off buildings, like at a movie premiere. Bodyguards walked the guy to stage to "Also sprach Zarathustra," Kweder wearing a spangly jumpsuit and cape just like the King's. And although he sounded nothing like Presley, when Kenn Kweder and the Secret Kids rolled into "Suspicious Minds," all bets were off.

"Meet Me on South Street: The Story of J.C. Dobbs" screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Legendary Dobbs, 304 South St. Info at MeetMeOnSouthStreetMovie.com. The Liberty Music Festival, presented by The Legendary Dobbs, DVT Events and THAT MAG! runs Thursday-Saturday. Two-day ticket, $14/$20 day of show; three-day ticket,$22/$30 day of show; all four-day tickets, $25/$40 day of show. Info at 215-501-7288, libertymusicfest.com.

Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or takiffj@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/gizmoguy.

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