Though he now plays to thousands of fans, the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein remembers the lean days—like when the band played in front of three people at a New Jersey club in 1997. Then there were the nine folks who showed up at a tavern in New Brunswick, N.J., and the 10 fans at a show in Memphis—five of them loyalists who’d driven 15 hours from State College. “We were no strangers to playing in front of small crowds,” says the Biscuits’ bassist.
A gig this past February was reminiscent of those days. The Disco Biscuits played for about 30, along with a screen full of Zoomed-in fans at Ardmore Music Hall. Thousands of people tuned in online, just as they had for more than 30 other shows streamed from AMH over the past year. When reunited ’80s funk-punk band Living Colour played an empty venue, more than 100,000 people saw the performance online.
The concert series was a rare bright spot. COVID-19 hit music venues across the country with a fury, forcing many to close and others to become emaciated husks of their former selves. Times have been tough, and AMH co-owner Chris Perella estimates that revenues are down 90 percent. But when COVID’s grip loosens, he and his team will be ready with a club that’s undergone an impressive renovation. “I have no doubt we’ll be back,” Perella says. “I don’t know when or how soon, and I don’t believe the prognostications that it won’t happen until 2024. I could see this fall being a real comeback for socialization and events. People will want to gather.”
Along tree-lined Lancaster Avenue, the front of the venue had always been a bit obscured. Now there’s a lighted marquee, and the box office has moved to the street for a more authentic theater feel. Inside, a downstairs bar that once ran almost the length of the space has been cut in half, making more room for fans. Capacity will be 500-600. “There’s so much more space on the floor,” Brownstein says.
The stage is now eight inches higher to improve sight lines for patrons. It’s also deeper to give musicians more room. The artists’ new pre-show refuge is above the stage, so there’s no more rubbing shoulders with fans on the way to play. “It’s more professional,” says Perella.
Upstairs, AMH’s balcony seating has been flipped around so fans are looking right down on the stage. There’s also more room. “We’re now able to make this 100 percent our own,” Perella says. “We inherited Brownies 23 East seven years ago, and it always had this big bar feel. We wanted to change that perception. It now feels like a truly purposeful rock venue.”
Aside from Brownies, AMH’s previous incarnations included the ’70s-era Sly Fox bar and 23 East Cabaret, which hosted local success stories like the Hooters and the Dead Milkmen, along with a variety of ’90s touring acts. Under the direction of Broomall-based entrepreneur Joe Rufo, Brownies became the Ardmore Music Hall in 2013, with Perella serving as managing partner and talent buyer. In April 2019, Perella partnered with Peter Martin and Biff Gottehrer, owners of Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft next door.
“When we bought the building, we inherited a bar that was converted to a music venue,” says Martin. “Now, we have a music venue that’s also a bar.”
Funding for renovations was raised in 2019. Perella, Martin and Gottehrer made the bold decision to devote the money to the overhaul rather than lost revenue. “We knew we were going to lose money and bleed a little,” Perella says.
Before the pandemic hit, fans enjoyed a diverse collection of touring acts in various genres, from blues, folk and Americana, to funk, new wave, and jam outfits like the Disco Biscuits. A heavy Grateful Dead influence is embodied in regular shows by tribute band Splintered Sunlight and other members of the extended Dead family.
AMH began booking acts again in April—though, at press time, Perella and Martin were unsure when capacity regulations would ease. “My personal feeling is that we’ll slowly creep back to normal in September—and by 2022, it’ll be like old times,” says Martin. “It’ll be the Roaring Twenties.”