Soul city: Philadelphia's music scene is a hit for travellers

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The Independent Travel

It is known as the city of ‘cheese-steaks’ - not exactly an advert for vegetarians like myself. But there is more to Philadelphia than its meaty cuisine, I discovered, after taking a long weekend trip to discover its musical past and present.

It has been home to some of the most iconic Jazz acts as well as Motown, punk, techno, rap and hip hop. During the 1970s, it became known for creating the ‘Philadelphia Soul’ sound gave birth to the likes of Patti LaBelle and Chubby Checker. Even John Coltrane and Harold Melvin (of The Blue Notes) lived here.

Taking a studio tour around the Philadelphia Records/The Sound of Philadelphia, which was made legendary by the song-writing and producing team, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, (, was a step back into flared, 1970s psychedelia. The writers rooms where classics such as ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’, ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ and ‘You are Everything’ were penned, were left frozen in time with shag-pile carpeted doors, orange interiors and its original pianos, as if they were made to be musical love shacks.

The tour guide, Chuck Gamble, the vice president (and nephew of the boss) scattered the tour with personal anecdotes - “Patti laBelle’s voice was so powerful we had to have special mic’s fitted”, “We recorded Michael Jackson in here,” etc, etc.

Fast-forward to 2009 and the city is still soaked in a vibrant music scene, with indie rock bars and atmospheric Jazz cafes emanating from innumerable street corners. The World Café Life nestles in the student quarter, and is for those who want to enjoy live music in a relatively intimate space (the seating capacity is 300 downstairs and holds up to 650 guests standing) with Marah, a homegrown Indie act featuring on the night I turned up.

The best thing about the music scene remains its Jazz. (Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus is a quintessential jazz club that might feature in the film noir, but without the plume of cigarette smoke. Narrow and candle lit, the live artists hailed from nearby New York on the night I drop by.

It had a heady mix of blissful Jazzerie, sprawling dining tables and inventive deserts, with a backdrop of soporific sax sounds until the early hours. The acts vary from the most established names on the scene to hip, up and coming acts, I’m told.

Then there is the ‘upstairs bit’ of Tin Angel, ( an exquisitely decorated restaurant with table mats on which you can scrawl with colourful pens nearby, a wide ranging menu and an upstairs gig venue which is organised in an ambient, café style setting. Eric Brazilian, a true blue Philadelphian and one time front-man of The Hooters, has put on a humorous, high energy show on the night I attended. The Tritone, in the Graduate Hospital neighbourhood, is another great venue for avant garde jazz as rock and roll, which you can listen to while ordering funky eats including fried pickles and deep fried candy bars.

The city is clearly pitching itself as a place of musical experimentalism: a new continental style ‘piazza’ which only recently opened is set to host musical and dance acts from around the world, free of charge. There are venues around every other street corner hosting bands big and small, and late night digs where some of the most alternative sounds are played.

If music isn’t you thing, then there is always art to feed the soul. Like New York, Philly is organised along a grid system, and divided into districts. While it does not have the manic energy of New York it has a cool youth culture, two universities and a particularly lively arts scene. The city is awash with murals (2,800 in total) and sculptures (including the second biggest collection of Rodin sculptures in the world, a sculpture of Joan of Arc, another by Claus Oldenberg, I could go on), and the impressive Philadelphia Art Museum , which is the third largest museum in America, after the Met and the Chicago Art Museum.

Boutique galleries and artists collective abound in the various corners; the city also has what is called ‘The First Friday’ every month in which galleries open up their doors, providing a glass of wine and nibbles, for the public to stray in and mooch. It’s one of the most ingenious ways of making art accessible that I have seen. The atmosphere on the streets is friendly and buzzing with regulars as well as curious tourists in the Old City section of Philadelphia. The First Friday has been running since 1991 but it does not seem tired; galleries spill out their wares onto the street; there are antiques, contemporary paintings and crafts that can be bought for the cost of a meal.

Speaking of food, the city is a haven for food lovers; two of the best places I visit were Tangerine, a swanky restaurant in the Old City with impeccable service and the equally impeccable dishes, owned by Steven Starr, which looked like set from Sex and the City. Or if you want soul food, go for brunch at Warmdaddy’s, ( a restaurant cum Sunday service sing-along where gospels acts play in the backdrop as you are served with helping after helping of corn bread. Even if you don't like corn bread, or gospel, or brunch, you'll find something in Warmdaddy's you'll love. So much for cheese-steaks. There really is more to Philadelphia.

Travel facts

For more information see the Philadelphia Conventions and Visitors Bureau:; 0844 880 6853

British Airways flies from Heathrow to Philadelphia from £330 return including taxes.

Visit or call British Airways on 0844 4930787.