As we made our way down Main Street in the lazy artist haven of New Hope, PA my friend ushered me through a small door that was tucked off the street with the promise of live music. I didn’t quite know what to think when I was confronted with a small room stocked with a couple of booths on one wall, a bar that bordered the other wall and what appeared to be little room for people to move around, let alone for a band to set up and play. My friend kept pushing me towards the back wall where a man sitting on a bar-stool stuck out his hand and demanded $5, not quite sure why I was giving him money, but hoping it would make a band appear, I thrust the money into his hand. My worry was quickly abated as the man slide back the wall he was sitting next to, revealing a small set of stairs that led down to a much larger room which had a stage. It was surrounded on three sides by tables and chairs and people jostling for a good spot to see the band from.
For those lucky enough to get next to the stage they had to be careful where they rested their drinks as they risked the chance of having an overzealous band member knock it over with the neck of his guitar. A waitress pushed her way through the crowd delivering drinks. The walls were covered with old posters announcing shows long gone and giving a glimpse into the life of the place: Clarence Gatemouth Brown, George Thorogood, Badfinger, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Vassar Clements, Tiny Tim, Norah Jones and Townes Van Zandt. There were flyers and stickers announcing hundreds of unknown bands plastered on the tables, railings, and littering the floor. It was dank and dark. The band was loud and playing their ass off, sweating under the bright lights that bore down on them. It was a place I had never been to before, but I felt comfortable right away.
The location that would become John & Peter’s was originally a dress shop. It closed and reopened in 1972 as John’s Place, named after owner John Larsen. Since then it has served as one of the longest running, continually owned music clubs on the East Coast. Larsen’s brother in law, Peter Price, soon became a partner, and it was renamed John & Peter’s.
In those first years it was quite different from the venue it is now. For the first year and half they served no alcohol as they did not have a liquor license. They would open daily at 7am to serve breakfast and bands with drums were taboo. Times have changed as they no longer serve breakfast (they still serve food though and it is well worth checking out) and bands with drums are now allowed on stage, but now just as then they have live music seven nights a week, they enforce a strict no-cover band policy, and most nights they have multiple bands stop by with a focus on the new and unknown. Just as on the night I was there when two bands I had never heard of, France on Fire and Illinois, made a great racket that moved me so. Some of these new and unknown bands that have played John & Peter’s have simply faded into obscurity never to be heard from again, while many others have moved to become legends.
New Hope residents Ween got their start at John & Peter’s playing many an early gig at the tiny cramped venue. Ween have long since outgrown the 150 person capacity club, but they still stop by to revisit past glories and play special intimate shows for their fans in a setting that can’t quite be matched any where else.
With the low level stage that finds fans in such close proximity to the performers, the sparse stage lighting that creates an air of intimacy, it is no wonder why award winning film-maker Ken Burns chose to shoot much of his PBS series American Jazz at the cramped club, filming many American jazz greats in the comfortable setting of John & Peter’s.
In the thirty plus years that John & Peter’s has been open, much has changed, styles have evolved, musical trends have come and gone, bands have come and gone, but not much as changed at the tiny New Hope club. John & Peter’s is a throw back to the days when Rock ‘n’ Roll venues were more than just bright lights, big stages, and flashy extras. John & Peter’s serves cold beer, plays the music loud, has small dirty bathrooms, but it is one helluva a good time.