Laura Mann settles into a seat at a table outside a local coffee shop. The poppy-seed bagel she’s eating will eventually leave her with a “tooth buddy” that’s nonetheless unable distract her for long. At her feet is the laid-back and obedient Casey, a golden doodle whose lone burst of energy is devoted to a brief encounter with the new friend she’d just met. Then it’s back to her nap.
Mann has plenty going on—but on this morning, but she’s quite relaxed. Her light jacket and flared jeans belie her ’80s rock roots as a members of Laura and the Lifeboys, a band that included Philly legend Robert “Escalator of Life” Hazard. Though she can still throw some three-chord rockers out to the audience, but she’s embraced the singer/songwriter path of late, including her most recent LP, 2019’s Plain as Day.
Mann has also opened her second local music venue, the Living Room at 35 East, which isn’t far from her Ardmore home, where she maintains a therapeutic and corrective massage therapy studio. At the Living Room, she books the acts, performs, and even prepares the food that’s served there. “She may not be a force like a tsunami, but she’s like a glacier,” says musician Dan Navarro, a long-time friend and collaborator. “She’s always moving — you can’t stop her.”
COVID halted Mann’s original Living Room at 35 East Lancaster Ave. This one is less than a mile away on East Ardmore Avenue. “I couldn’t afford the rent,” she says of the original.
So Mann took a sabbatical. “I didn’t give up,” she says. “I was still going to re-open.” In the Cassia Lodge & Masonic Hall, the new space holds about 300 people and offers a variety of viewing options, from cozy couches (the “comfy package”) to more traditional standing areas. “People love the fact that you can go sit on a couch with a bottle of wine and listen to your favorite artist,” Mann says. “Nobody else around here is doing that.”
Three years ago, Mann headed to Los Angeles to hang out with Navarro and work on some songs. The two were having lunch, and Navarro asked his friend, “How are you feeling?”
“Satisfied,” was her response. As she explained why, Navarro took out his phone and started texting. It was the chorus to a song. He hit send.
“We banged out that song, and it appears on her most recent record,” Navarro says.
Despite her entrepreneurial instincts, Mann remains a musician. She’s been one since she was 8, when she received her first guitar as a gift. Growing up in South Jersey, she learned how to play and sang as much as possible in school. It was clear early on that she had a strong voice. “Every year, I had a solo in the school chorus performance,” she says.
Sixteen and still at Shawnee High School, she joined a band called Elysian Fields, a four-part harmony outfit of 20-somethings. “They took me under their wing,” Mann says.
They sang songs by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Dave Mason, Pink Floyd and other folk and classic rock acts. A few years later, she was approached by Mike Vesper, a drummer who was putting together a band with Hazard. He asked Mann to join, and Laura and the Lifeboys was born. Following the band’s breakup, Mann began writing her own songs and performing solo, with Hazard as her manager. She’d eventually open for a pretty impressive lineup of artists, including Warren Zevon, Al Stewart and Ronnie Spector.
Mann even found her way to Star Search and won the first round, singing “You’re the Reason I” by Hazard. Throughout the 1990s, she continued to perform solo and with various bands, working often with well-connected California-based composer/producer Charlton Pettus. Though she took time away from music early in the 2000s to build her massage therapy business, she’s released three albums since 2010. “I always liked her voice,” says Pettus, who’s written music for several TV shows and movies. “The big thing for me is that she has great tone.”
Rest assured Mann will perform at the Living Room, but she’ll also be running a business. The venue doesn’t have a liquor license, but it does allow folks to bring their favorite drinks, which they can pair with nonalcoholic offerings, comfort food like grilled cheese sandwiches, and a variety of desserts—all prepared by Mann. The lineup of performers is eclectic and includes a range of formats, from solo acts, to duos to full bands. Names like Marshall Crenshaw and John Waite were on the fall docket.
Wisely, Mann is not out to compete with the nearby Ardmore Music Hall or other larger venue in the region. Her goal is to build more critical mass for music lovers looking for unique places to see shows. “People are already comparing us to the Main Point,” Mann says, referring to the legendary Bryn Mawr locale that decades ago hosted the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Muddy Waters, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt. And though the Living Room’s capacity is a modest 300, plenty of artists are looking for an intimate venue in the Philadelphia market. And since Mann is a musician, there’s the lure of working with someone who understands the ins and outs of the business. “I’ve played the Philadelphia area a lot over the years—places like the Tin Angel and World Cafe Live, but I never drew well,” Navarro says. “I played the first Living Room location and sold it out. Never underestimate the value of a packed house.”
And don’t ever bet against Mann. Ardmore is growing, with new residential and retail projects popping up regularly. People need something to do on weekends, and the Living Room certainly provides that. “It’s a great, warm place,” Navarro says.
And it’s just the latest endeavor for a woman who’s enjoyed dual success as a musician and an entrepreneur. “Our new spot uses a part of the hall the Masons aren’t using,” Mann says. “But I’ve made it work.”
The same goes for pretty much everything else she’s tackled.
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