Rekindling The Fire: 16-Year-Old NoLibs Music Venue Set For Comeback Show This Saturday
Derek Dorsey is looking to make a big statement. Just a week shy of The Fire’s relaunch party on Aug. 13, I touched base with its longtime talent buyer and booking agent in regards to what’s to come.
Dorsey, who has worked at the 16-year-old Girard Ave. music venue for a majority of its lifespan, is now the club’s owner. When the opportunity arose to take over its full operations and purchase the building, he couldn’t refuse. (Formerly, the business was owned by Dan McShane who opened the venue in 2000.)
“Rarely does a venue have a chance to reinvent itself and that’s what we are doing,” said Dorsey. “We have a strong brand with an incredible history and there’s so much excitement and enthusiasm of The Fire being back.”
As a notable pillar in the Philly music scene, the Northern Liberties venue has scored its share of buzzed-about musicians. It’s even given household names their start, by offering up on-going — sometimes weekly or monthly — musician residences.
“Amos Lee signed his half-million dollar record contract with Blue Note Records in The Fire’s Green Room — something that we helped set up,” he reminisced. “We are just involved differently with artists.”
Its laundry list of accomplishments include giving a young John Legend, then a University of Pennsylvania student, stage time. There was also the time that Maroon 5 played and filmed their MTV Live show at the venue —which was broadcasted internationally. Let us not forget that there was a period where bands like Dr. Dog and War on Drugs called The Fire “home.” If they had an EP coming out, they’d play every Wednesday or Friday or every month to two months — however long it could sustain itself,” recounted Dorsey. “This really helped bands build a following. That was probably the biggest part of building The Fire.”
But, through the years, a lot of the top talent hitting the neighborhood bar’s stage was due to its now-owner’s deferential relationships he’d developed through the years in the music business. Though Dorsey, uncommonly, came to work in the industry through a hapstance circumstance: he was a social worker attempting to raise funds for North Philly students by hosting a benefit concert. A personal connection led him to meet Elise Brown, former PR Manager of WXPN. With her help, his event proved more than successful raising twice the anticipated donations. Soon, he was propelled into the music business, managing and consulting for several large-scale music conferences (Philadelphia Music Conference, North by Northwest Music Conference).
Around this time, The Fire’s original owners were in the market to expand its brand. “It had a very slow build with local bands and gradually improving the music program and equipment,” he said. ‘They realized their vision was something greater, but needed a talent buyer/booking agent. That’s where I came in.”
The West Philly native continued to wear many hats after taking this role, including acting as an A&R executive for Cherry Lane Music Publishing Company. “I had this crazy dual life where I had a place in Astoria, a place in Philadelphia and was still running The Fire (though I had an intern to work as a full-time booking assistant). Sometimes, I’d be in Philly, D.C. and New York to see different shows all in the same day.”
His first official deal was with the Cold War Kids, who happened to also play their first Northeast, sold-out show at The Fire. “The Fire wouldn’t have been able to forge on [throughout those years] without Nick Fanelli,” Dorsey recalled. (He’s now co-founder of The Guild, a DIY concert promoting collective.)
“Even now, I’m very fortunate to have an incredibly strong intern program. It initially started at Drexel and now has expanded to Rowan University. Some amazing people have come out of it: Paige Snyder, formerly the production manager of PETA, and Jeff Meyers of Boot & Saddle, among many others.”
But, what’s his deal with taking over The Fire now? “I’m bringing us back to what we did and what worked and why it worked,” he said. “We are a very strong presence that’s not only local, but in the regional and national music scene. I’m investing in what we do, investing in the building — which, through the years, became one of our biggest handicaps.”
Over the last few months, The Fire has undergone physical renovations to enhance the space, as well as built a recognizably fierce team to help with its reinvention. His staff includes bar manager Ly-dia Giord-ano, who happens to be Bumrunner’s pedigree-guitarist.
“I met Derek in the music industry, but from the business side, which is always daunting from a musician’s standpoint,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from him and we’ve seen the music industry change. He’ll bring The Fire to what it needs to be.”
Dorsey’s The Fire will relaunch in two phases. Phase 1 is this Saturday, Aug. 13, 7 PM. It’s a free show that acts as a “thank you” to those who have supported The Fire through the years. Expect Joie Kathos, the Ill Fated Natives, Chalk & The Beige Americans and Attic Tapes to hit the stage.
Phase 2 gets even better. Consider it The “new” Fire’s grand reopening, unfolding from Sept. 12–18. Dorsey bills it as “one of the most epic weeks in Philadelphia music” and believes “it’s going to make a statement—not just for the venue and the community around us. It’ll show that Philly can support a lot of shows and artists in a big way.”
Performances will include Illinois on Sept. 14, Marah with special guest Ben Arnold on Sept. 16 (smallest venue Marah’s played in 15 years!), CRUISR on Sept. 17 and an all-day music festival on Sept. 18. Full list of events at www.thefirephilly.com.
“Philly is one of the places that is at the epicenter of the nation music scene,” he concluded. “There is as talented a group of artists here that you will find anywhere; there is a real music community that supports those artists. Along with Brooklyn and Nashville, Philadelphia is where the hub of music is happening right now and if you’re a musician, it’s a really good place to be. What we are doing at [The new Fire] is re-engaging and coming in with a big splash.” •