Where We Belong: World Cafe Live

With our Isolation Drills series, MAGNET has been checking in with Philadelphia-area musicians to see how and what they’re doing during the pandemic. Now, we’re also shining a light on our beloved local venues, hoping their stages will be saved. Photos by Chris Sikich.

MAGNET: How is World Cafe Live currently holding up?
Jeff Meyers (senior talent buyer): It’s been a wild ride since March. I feel like the past nine-plus months have been a complete blur. It was at the end of February that I started to sense that things were going to shut down. When festivals across the country started to cancel, I knew it was going to trickle down. We’re hanging in there, though. It’s going to be a long road ahead, and we’re just trying to stay positive and focus on the future as best as we can.

What was the last show you had at WCL?
The last show we had was Friday, March 13, with Trace Bundy in The Lounge. The guests and our staff really tried to have the best time possible as all of us knew that things weren’t going to be the same. That whole week of shows was honestly very strange and people in general being scared about the uncertainty of the virus.

What does the future look like for WCL?
I feel like week to week, I would have a different answer for you. We’re trying to look ahead. We’re trying to make smart decisions about the idea of re-opening. We talk a lot about how we are going to essentially re-open, which is a strange thing to ponder for a venue that has been around for 16 years. I will say I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Farley in Philadelphia and Dr. Levine in Pennsylvania, who are trying to make the best decisions based purely on public health and science. This isn’t easy, but I wish some of the government officials actually understood how our business works and how venues are uniquely affected by this more than a normal bar/restaurant, gym, etc.

How can the public support WCL right now?
The biggest way for the public to support independent music venues across the United States is donating to NIVA (National Independent Venue Association). NIVA started right after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Our owner, Hal Real, is actually currently on the board. They are the ones that helped developed the Save Our Stages Act that’s currently included in the COVID-19 relief packages in the federal government. Here’s info to help donate to them.

Otherwise, for World Cafe Live, we actually became a non-profit earlier this year, so you can donate to us here. We also still have been hosting some Virtual Quizzos, promoting other livestreams around the country, have some food plans for the holidays and discussions about internal livestreams. I would recommend to keep up with our newsletter and check out some of the programs we’re doing during the time that we’re closed.

Michael Stevens (PhillyBloco) on World Cafe Live

World Cafe Live is, quite simply, our Philly home. Over the past 10 years, we’ve probably played there 20-30 times, and each time has been an amazing and joyful experience. There’s no way to overstate what the venue has meant to us and our fans.

Probably the fondest memories are the New Year’s Eve and Brazilian Carnaval celebrations. The PhillyBloco/WCL fans truly feel like family to us, and there’s nothing more special than celebrating these occasions with our loved ones both on the stage and in the crowd.

The venue itself has been incredibly gracious with us over the years. The staff has made us feel so welcome, and there’s always this feeling we’re all on the same team, equally excited to put on an amazing experience for everyone at the venue that night.

It’s not lost on us that our final show before the COVID hit was our February Brazilian Carnaval bash at World Cafe. This is always our biggest and most exciting show of the year, and 2020 was no exception.

Since then, the world of live music has largely grinded to a halt, for reasons we fully understand. It’s with both sadness and gratitude that we reflect on that Carnaval show, and hope that someday soon World Cafe and PhillyBloco will again join forces to bring the joy and energy of live music back into that amazing venue.

MAGNET’s M.J. Fine and Chris Sikich on meeting and falling in love at World Cafe Live

Fine: One of the great things about World Cafe Live, if you’re short like I am, is that the stage is high enough to see the performer from many angles—even if there’s a tall dude standing in front of you. That night, though, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The show was a belated birthday present for my brother, and we wanted to stand right in front to watch Peter Buck play guitar with the Minus 5, the Baseball Project and the Steve Wynn IV, so we got there early. Way early. So early, in fact, that there was only one other ticket holder in the 650-person capacity room. Unfortunately, or so I thought, the one person who beat us there—a tall dude with a camera—was standing in the precise spot I wanted. 

A normal person would have chosen another place to stand, since literally every other spot was open. Instead, after a quick bite at the bar, I chose to stand right behind the tall dude with the camera. Between sets, we took turns checking out the merch, holding one another’s place in the crowd—which had filled in nicely—and talked just a little. He mentioned that he’d requested “Dark Hand Of Contagion.” That’s another of the great things about World Cafe Live: The space at the bottom of the stairs, where the merch table goes, is open enough so you can take a quick peek at the merch and keep moving or queue up for a brief chat with the band.

When the band returned for the next set, and Scott McCaughey opened it by singing “It wasn’t the wrath of God/Or the dark hand of contagion/Not some cruel comedy/Or a botched-up engraving,” I tapped the tall dude on the shoulder and mouthed, “They’re playing your song!” That’s yet another great thing about World Cafe Live: The sound mix is excellent, so you can make out every word. The tall dude grinned and nodded, and we both quickly resumed our focus on Peter Buck playing guitar. There’d be time enough to talk in the merch line after the show, in emails exchanged later that night, on our first date seven weeks later and in the decade we’ve been married.

And we didn’t have a band or a DJ at that event—neither of us would have been able to focus on our guests if we had—but during the reception, via a CD played at low volume, you might have heard McCaughey singing: “Your wedding day was so well planned/Like a German occupation/I signed the note on your nightstand/‘The Dark Hand Of Contagion.’”

Sikich: You never know when a show will change your life. We go to hear music we already know. We go to get a drink and hang out with friends. We go to connect with the raw burst of otherworldly energy that is created within a space at a singular moment between a certain group of performers, a certain group of attendees and the space they occupy. This alchemy is magical. And on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, the magic was off the scales. 

That night three bands made up of the same performers were gracing the downstairs main stage of World Café Live: the Minus 5, the Baseball Project and the Steve Wynn IV. Despite the awesome musicianship shown within this billing (Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck), I was there for a singular purpose: to see Peter Buck, the jangle guitar master from my favorite band of all time, R.E.M. To see him in such close proximity in a room as intimate as World Cafe Live is what music fans crave from the vital small venue scene. And to see him in Philadelphia, a place close to where I lived at the time, could not be missed.  

I was the first audience member to arrive at the venue. My goal was to be there so I could stand on the side of the stage Buck would be on. When I was finally in that room, a space I had been only a few times then but that has now become one of my favorite spaces in the city, I planted my body where I would have the best view of my favorite guitarist. He even came out across the stage when no one else was in the venue—at least to my knowledge—and waved at me, a friendly politeness that he often has for fans. 

The crowd gathered and I noticed those around me, including a lovely woman and other fans who I did not know. The show was superb, with Wynn, Pitmon, McCaughey and Buck moving back and forth through the catalog of these three musical entities they were touring behind plus some covers for good measure. 

Then there was an odd pause for a rock show, an intermission between the bands’ two sets. This space gave me time to go into the lobby and see if I could catch McCaughey and request “Dark Hand Of Contagion,” my favorite song from the most recent the Minus 5 record. I asked the lovely woman standing near me if she could keep my spot. She agreed. After returning from this request, happy that he said he would play it, I did something I rarely ever have; I started up a conversation with this woman. She revealed her name (M.J.) and her musical tastes (her favorite band was R.E.M., too, and she had seen them 40-plus times!). A shock of silver in her gorgeous hair, a passion for the art that I often turned too in my most depressed, happiest and introspective moments and a blazing intellect were revealed to me in a brief conversation. 

And then the quartet walked to the stage and McCaughey began the first notes of “Dark Hand Of Contagion.” M.J. looked at me and was excited they were playing the song I requested. The buzz of musical alchemy was at its peak, raging in that room on Walnut Street. The magic has connected M.J. and me ever since. It has resulted in McCaughey playing that same song (pretty bizarre song for such powerful kismet, but art has its mysterious ways) for us at two different shows attended in subsequent years.  

A space for a universe of musical possibilities, World Cafe Live is a one-of-a-kind venue that I cannot wait to see a show again in.