Shore Road Tavern: Neighborhood tappie or ultra-hip music spot?

Shore Road bartenders Danielle Coyle and Aileen Miller.
Shore Road bartenders Danielle Coyle and Aileen Miller.
Posted: July 10, 2014

QUICK! NAME a landmark bar on Robbins Street on the way to the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

Got it? Great. Now name a landmark bar on Robbins Street on the way to the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge that isn't the original Chickie's & Pete's.

If you said the Shore Road Tavern, pour yourself a frosty Bud to celebrate.

No one seems to know exactly how long the Shore Road Tavern has been open for business on Robbins Street near Jackson, but for generations of Shore-goers, passing by it on the way to Cape May (or Wildwood or Ocean City) has been as much a part of the trip as crossing the 85-year-old span that looms within walking distance of the self-proclaimed "dive bar" in the heart of a close-knit, working-class neighborhood.

Inside and out, the cozy (read: really small) saloon screams "neighborhood tappie," from the well-worn horseshoe bar and vintage wood paneling to the $2 PBRs and decadeslong regulars who congregate on the sidewalk to bust each others' chops and play "washers," a variation on horseshoes using the small, doughnut-shaped metal discs.

But here's the thing: This totally unassuming corner bar in Wissinoming may also be one of the region's hippest music venues.

Rockabilly spoken here

While most neighborhood bars outside the Center City area with live-music policies ply their patrons with an endless parade of semipro bands playing "Brown Eyed Girl," "Hotel California" and other classic-rock chestnuts, for more than three years, the Shore Road has been a popular stop for solo artists and bands who perform under the rather large umbrella of "underground roots."

These acts - from throughout the U.S. and Europe - fly well under the mainstream radar but have fan bases large enough to continuously tour and record. They delve into such country-rooted sonic subgenres as Americana, rockabilly and "psychobilly," which blends traditional 1950s-based rockabilly (think pre-RCA Elvis Presley) with punk rock.

"I'm born and raised in Northeast Philly. And since I was a kid, if you're gonna see a live band in Northeast Philly, you're gonna see a cover band," offered Mike Fiedler, who has owned and operated the Shore Road with his wife, Kathleen Woelfel-Fiedler, since August 2010.

"To see good, original live music - nationally touring, internationally touring musicians - you gotta go downtown, and you gotta pay Center City parking and Center City bar prices. We only wanted to do original music," he said.

Destiny chose them

Actually, there was a time when Fiedler, 51, didn't want to have anything to do with running a bar. But as Martin Landau's character in "Rounders" tells Matt Damon's character, "You don't choose your destiny, your destiny chooses you."

Mike is, by trade and training, an emergency-room nurse currently employed at Holy Redeemer Hospital. (Kathleen was also an ER nurse but just last month gave it up to run the bar full time.) As such, he "wasn't crazy about the idea of getting into the bar business, mainly because as an ER nurse, I see the end result of the bad things that happen in bars."

But circumstances forced him to reconsider.

For years, Kathleen's brother, Billy Woelfel, tended bar at the Shore Road, working for longtime owner Bernie McDonald. "One day [in 2004] Bernie just turned around and said, 'You wanna buy this bar?' " Mike said.

Kathleen's dad, retired city firefighter Bill Woelfel, agreed to put up the money and run the Shore Road with his son, provided Mike and Kathleen put it in their names.

Under the elder Woelfel's guidance, the bar was a success. But then Bill became sick, and business slowed. Kathleen and Mike stepped in, Mike recalled. "Kathy said, 'You know what, Mike? I wanna do this. I can do this.' And I said, 'Go for it.' "

A fresh approach

Mike credits Kathleen for putting the Shore Road on healthy footing. And it was she who had the idea to bring in live music, if only to improve nighttime business because, she explained, most of her joint's regulars drink during the day and are generally gone by 9 p.m.

"I think because there's so many bars in the neighborhood that have the same cover bands, it can get old," Kathleen reasoned. "So, what is it that we can do that will bring in a different crowd? The answer was original music. And Mike was able to run with that. But it was about being able to keep the business sustainable at night."

The couple's first forays into presenting original bands involved booking their musician friends. But things took a serious turn when Mike was on the Facebook page of one of his favorite groups, a country trio out of Reno, Nev., called Hellbound Glory. On the site, the band claimed it was looking for a venue to play between Pittsburgh and New Haven, Conn. He took a shot and offered a gig.

A new national-tour venue was born.

Not incidentally, the phrase "original music" is taken very seriously at the Shore Road. To avoid having to pay licensing fees to BMI and ASCAP, which monitor song usage for composers and collect fees from venues, the club has a strict "no cover" policy.

Mostly, the shows are presented on Friday and Saturday nights, in deference to those living within earshot of the impossibly small stage that Mike insisted has held as many as six musicians at a time. Generally, the Fiedlers try not to charge a cover, preferring patrons spend their money at the bar and on merchandise hawked by performers.

'My second home now'

There's no question acts have embraced the Shore Road. Some, like Hellbound Glory, have made repeated stops there. Part of the attraction is the way the bar's owners treat their performers.

Not only can acts stay overnight on the top floor free of charge, but Mike, a gifted amateur graphic artist, almost always creates a one-of-a-kind poster for a gig. His work is on display throughout the property.

Among the Shore Road's many admirers is Chattanooga, Tenn.-based bluesman Husky Burnette, who posted his thoughts on the blog of the Rusty Knuckles record label.

Mike, wrote Burnette, "has become a brother of mine these days. Him and his crew of misfits are some of the most real people I've ever hung out with, and because of that, I call Philly and Shore Road my second home now. I try to pass through every chance I get, whether I'm on tour or not.

"Mike and Kathy are truly down for the cause, and Shore Road is making history, like every other good dive bar that does it for the right reasons. They are a rare breed for sure and we love them for it."

Despite its prominence on the "underground roots" circuit, the Shore Road remains, at its core, a neighborhood taproom. Mike admitted that his regular customers haven't all bought into its musical format, although he conceded they tend to get a kick out of interacting with people from out of state and overseas.

"They've been slow to warm up," he said. "Change isn't easy for anyone. This is still 'their bar.' We recognize that."

And so do folks like Bob Carter, one of the many regulars who have called the bar their home-away-from-home for decades.

"I seen five or six different owners," Carter said. "They all leave, but the Shore Road remains the same."


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

 

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