SawTown Tavern is a neighborhood fixture for original artists and community bonds.
Fairy lights dangle over a 20-seat bar that splits the room in half. One side is drenched in purple light and has a small stage surrounded by artwork. Some singers call it home. The other side is mostly dominated by the bar, where you can watch the performers or talk and enjoy the game.
Welcome to SawTown Tavern, where on any given Tuesday night original acts are able to rule the room on open mic night. Devon Czekaj has just finished up his act. An on-again, off-again performer at SawTown for two years, he improvised his set tonight, while he’s preparing to release his upcoming album in the near future.
Czekaj lives in Doylestown, but finds himself commuting to the city often for events like this.
“The fact that [SawTown] emphasizes original material is so refreshing for an open mic,” he said. “I never have to worry about being subjected to awful renditions of Neil Young and Bob Dylan.”
Czekaj isn’t alone in that opinion — many of the acts who performed Aug. 7 lamented the lack of bars with microphones that don’t emphasize karaoke or cover bands in the area. That’s why they keep coming back to the cramped, art-covered, tomato pie-serving jawn at Princeton Avenue and Vandike Street.
The strange world of SawTown Tavern revolves around community. Most of the 13 acts performing that night have been there before, chatting while smoking cigarettes outside and bantering on stage inside. Local band Adventure Lost hosts the show the first Tuesday of every month. This week is especially busy — acts have to narrow their set to two or three songs instead of the usual four.
Jim Lopardo is the man overseeing operations. He owns Sandbox Music Group, a music production and publication service meant to foster and spread young talent in the Philadelphia area. He runs open mic night and brings a lot of his signed acts to the bar — Czekaj and Secret Base Life are both signed artists who performed that night. Other times, he’s signed artists discovered at SawTown, like young singer Su Z.
“You have to be invested in the creation of something new, and there’s no proven market value,” Lopardo said of the importance of showcasing original music.
“It’s a leap of faith. It’s not a large place so you don’t need a lot to be successful. You just need enough motivated people to make it successful,” he said.
It’s an exciting time for SawTown.
The bar was just awarded a $15,000 grant from the CDC, given to restaurants to expand their businesses. Troy Everwine, SawTown owner for about three years, said he hopes to use it to create outdoor seating and expand the kitchen.
“It’s to take us from bar to restaurant, which has always been the plan,” he said.
As it is right now, SawTown is not a food destination. The only food item offered is $5 tomato pies, which attract rave reviews. Everwine is in the process of rolling out a plant-based food menu that will act as healthy and quirky alternatives to bar food staples.
Items that have been taste tested by crowds include jack’d Italian por’k, which includes broccoli rabe and roast pepper on a baguette, and crab’d stuffed mushrooms drizzled with herbed horseradish sauce. (‘YES!’ was enthusiastically scribbled next to the Italian por’k on the chart). Bartender Tara Gontek’s mini hearts of palm crab’d cake on Romesco sauce also earned enthusiastic reviews.
The sample dish of that night was meatball made from chickpea, seitan, almond, walnut and cashew mixed together with fresh herbs. The easy bite has an appealing texture in the simple form of a meatball.
The bar’s drink menu is much more expansive than its current dining options. Everwine and Mike “Scoats” Scotese of Grey Lodge Pub invented two signature brews. The Sly Fox SawTown Kelemen Pils is exclusively available at SawTown and Sly Fox locations. The Naked SawTown Pink Bunny IPA used real grapefruit and hibiscus flowers to give it its pink color.
The bar also includes a generous cocktail list. There’s even a cocktail named after singer Su Z that mixes lime, cranberry, lemonade and Sprite. (Su Z is the non-alcoholic version. To add Absolut Citron, you have to ask for Su Z’s Mom.)
Sense of family
Open mic night is big, but it’s just one night a week at SawTown Tavern.
Trivia, Cards Against Humanity and other bar games happen in five rounds Mondays, and Wednesdays see two women perform live cabaret.
It’s the only bar in the surrounding Tacony area that Stanford Birch trusts.
“I came here with my mother when I was 7 years old,” said the 55-year-old. He’s been going to the bar ever since because, he said, it’s like the show Cheers.
“I’m starting to know everybody, everybody’s starting to know me, and it’s been like that all the years I’ve been coming here,” he said. “So it’s like Cheers.”
“We’re a community, neighborhood bar,” Everwine said.
But Friday night saw the community mourn a member recently lost. In April, Ghosha D’Aguanno lost her life to a fast and surprising battle with lung cancer. She was a frequent singer and piano player at the bar and other places and events around the area.
A painting called The Key of Change by Ty Derk is mounted next to the stage. It shows a pair of lungs with musical notes where the head would be, surrounded by the lyrics “…And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” from The End by the Beatles.
“That’s how she ended every night, no matter where she played,” Everwine said. “She’s played all over the world.”
Everwine called the 66-year-old one of his best friends.
“She had more stories than time to tell,” he said.
A bench outside the bar was painted by Derk and Cyril VanLandingham in her memory. Everwine had received the bench for a gift and was about to throw it out before he realized how he could use it.
Friday night served as a time to remember her and cherish the impact she had on the bar. As she continued to play piano for the bar, Lopardo and Ben Radcliffe began to play with her, and the trio formed a band. Everwine recalled one night finding her crying and smiling at the same time.
“I was at the bar, and I asked her what was wrong,” he said. “She said, I’d never thought I’d have this again. A band. Thank you.” ••