Thursday 29 June 2023

Welcome Back Paddy Reilly's!

So Paddy Reilly’s has reopened.  Welcome back - though your absence was short, you were missed.

It’s not just that New York City is daily becoming less of an Irish town and any pub is a loss; no, it’s that Reilly’s stood for something – original Irish music that had something to say.

You may not have noticed it but live music is on the ropes right now. Sure you’ve got Taylor Swift packing them in, fair play to her; but that’s American Express music, it costs an arm and a leg, and is designed to keep you purring and never to offend.

When was the last time you strolled into a pub and were blown away by some band singing songs that you never even imagined before, all the while challenging you with their opinions?

In the early days, that’s what Reilly’s was about. Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 in there. We figured that with Bob Marley dead and The Clash disbanded there was an opening for a political band playing original music.

We didn’t have any songs but we did have gigs, as Chris’s band, Beyond The Pale, broke up that night and he had a scattering of engagements to fulfill in The Bronx.

We knocked off some originals that week, compiled a list of interesting songs we could jam on, and the following Friday we hit The Bronx.

Or rather, The Bronx hit us. Let’s just say each of those early gigs was a battle that ended up in a no-decision - basically speaking, we got out alive.

But it was late 1989, a recession was raging, bands were needed on Bainbridge, and we were no sooner fired by one joint than hired by another.

Months later when we returned to Reilly’s we had many original songs, a growing following and an “independent” reputation. When someone demanded a Pogues song, a typical riposte was, “When was the last time you heard The Pogues do a Black 47 song?”

Steve Duggan, manager and eventually owner of Paddy Reilly’s, saw our potential, and why not? The place was jammed, the pints were flowing, enough said!

But it wasn’t just Black 47. Though we established a residency on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a scene began - soon Spéir Mór were playing Fridays, Rogue’s March Sundays, Paddy A-Go-Go Mondays, Eileen Ivers & Seamus Egan Tuesdays, with a top of the line Seisiún every Thursday. The Prodigals eventually took over Fridays and continue to play there to this day.

All of these bands made an impact nationally, along with many others who packed this small Second Avenue venue. The key was originality. Everyone was writing their own songs and creating their own style.

There’s nothing wrong with playing standards, but that ground has already been well covered; there comes a time when you’ve got to put your best foot forward and reach for the stars.

Black 47 eventually performed everywhere from stadiums to Leno, Letterman, and O’Brien, but a night in Reilly’s stands out.

We were introducing a new song, it was long, involved, and barely rehearsed, but as we played something happened that became bigger than all of us; the audience stood rapt in attention and the silence continued for a long moment after we’d finished. The song was James Connolly and it’s gone on to become a civil rights anthem.

It’s almost impossible for musicians to make a living now, streaming killed CDs, a vital revenue stream for most touring bands, while the pandemic has put the kibosh on so many live venues.

Oddly enough, the humble Irish pub could be the savior. Unlike many celebrated rock venues, pub owners know their business and are willing to take chances. It’s the musicians responsibility to draw the crowds.

Connolly’s on 47thStreet has a great sound system and a tradition of packed houses, Ulysses on Stone Street has a new state of the art Music Room.  

So welcome back, Paddy Reilly’s! It’s the best of times and the worst of times, but people will always love live music. It’s just got to be original, and say something to the young people of today, much like it did in the Paddy Reilly’s of yesterday.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Good Vibrations in Hells Kitchen

Everything changed in November 1976 when The Sex Pistols released Anarchy In the UK.  Punk was born.

Yeah, yeah, I know Punk began in CBGB’s a couple of years earlier with The Ramones and Television. I was there, but The Pistols put the politics in Punk, and The Clash set London burning soon after.

Within weeks of Anarchy’s release EMI Records dropped the Sex Pistols for swearing on live TV. They should have given them a medal for honesty, considering the state of the UK in those days.

Rock music tends to rev up and regenerate the more depressed things are politically and economically. 

Progressive Rock - the hip music of the pre-Punk era - had become so ponderous and self-referential, you needed actual music training to play the damned thing.

And what’s reading scores got to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll? Just rip out 3 loud chords, take a shot of Jameson’s, open your mouth, and see what comes out – chances are your friends can dance to it, that’s what Punk was all about.  Turn up to 11, have some fun, and to hell with the begrudgers!

Over in Belfast in 1976, a self-confessed “old hippy” named Terri Hooley opened a record shop on Great Victoria Street. Terri’s taste was broad and he lamented the fact that Belfast had become a no-go area for international touring bands.

In fact, Belfast had become a no-go area in general, with Catholic and Protestants sticking to their own turf – and never the twain would meet.

Like many music aficionados Terri had little interest in 3 chord manic Rock ‘n’ Roll, but like everyone else he listened to the Almighty John Peel on BBC and he sensed a change coming.

Soon after Good Vibrations opened Hooley noticed that the black leather-jacketed youth from both communities, if not mixing, were sharing space around his shop; and as Punk raised its spiked head he realized that both Protestants and Catholics were buying the same records.

There would be many ups and downs in the Terri Hooley story, but I won’t spoil them for you, instead go see the musical Good Vibrations that opens for previews tonight at The Irish Arts Center. It’s the real deal.

You don’t have to like Punk Rock but my guess is even if you don’t give a fiddler’s for this unruly genre, you’ll be humming Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers or one of the many anthems that a driven group of 12 actors and musicians from Belfast will be delivering for the next month.

Though Belfast has changed immeasurably in the last 50 years, it’s good to look back, from the safety of a theatre seat, at a benighted weirdo like Mr. Hooley who stood up to sectarian conformity, and in his own way set the stage for the ongoing peace process.

Personally, I’m in awe of the musicians who formed Stiff Little Fingers, The Outcasts, Rudi, and Protex, not to mention the stalwart fans who supported them. In 1981 while on tour in Belfast with the punky Major Thinkers, though our gig was cancelled because of the Hunger Strikes, I felt in mortal danger twice in the one night – talk about a tough town!

It’s to the Irish Arts Center’s credit that they are hosting this Lyric Theatre production, hot off the stage from a blockbuster run at Belfast’s Grand Opera House.  And what better space in which to experience this explosive musical!

I can vouch for the state-of-the-art PA system and am looking forward to seeing how the Good Vibrations creative team uses the amazingly adaptable IAC theatre.

In a way, this will be a coming-of-age production for the Center – a large sized original musical encapsulating an important political and social moment in Irish history.

It’s time the Punk Spirit of ’76 as portrayed in Good Vibrations was unleashed in New York City, and where better to feel its heat than in Hell’s Kitchen.

All that remains to be decided is what to wear? Black leather will never go astray, try safety pints in a ripped-up Taylor Swift t-shirt, spiked hair, bovver boots, torn fishnets, studded dog collars!

If you didn’t live the punk life while it was happening, now’s your chance. Don’t waste it!


Good Vibrations at The Irish Arts Center, 726 11thAvenue, NYC  June 14-July 16 

Box Office 888-616-0274

Friday 2 June 2023

Going Up the Country - East Durham on my mind


I’m going up the country

Baby, don’t you wanta go

Going to take you some place

Where you’ve never been before


I’m going, I’m going

Where the water tastes like wine

We can jump in the river

Stay drunk all the time


Around this time of year, Going up the Country by Canned Heat starts gnawing at my brain. Small wonder, seeing I spent so many Memorial Day Weekends in the “mountains?” 


I’m not referring to the Himalayas, Pyrenees, or even the McGillycuddy Reeks. I’m talking Catskills, and in particular a large-size piece of heaven known as the Irish Alps.


I’d never even heard of these particular Alps until Turner & Kirwan of Wexford got fired from a lucrative summer gig in Falmouth MA. I’ve still no notion why this abrupt termination came to pass, though it may have been for singing an anti-Vietnam War ditty.


In a panic, I called Mike O’Brien, nephew of the Clancy Brothers, who told me that a band had just received the heave-ho at O’Shea’s Irish Center in Leeds, and if we could make it onstage by 8pm the following evening, the gig was ours.


When I inquired the whereabouts of Leeds, Mike replied cryptically, “It’s just off the Thruway between Albany and Kingston.”


Try as we might, we couldn’t locate Leeds on our hardback Atlas of America; besides, there was always the chance that Mike, with his refined Tipperary humor, was having us on.


But with Falmouth a washout, we threw caution to the wind and set off for Albany in our old Dodge Polara, hoping to buy a local map somewhere on the Thruway to Kingston.


We did find Leeds eventually - though we sped through it once without noticing -and we were onstage and pumping out Kinks, Grateful Dead and Irish Rovers moments before 8pm under the critical eye of Mr. Gerry O’Shea.


We were alternating sets with the fabulous Mike O’Brien and Chris King, known widely as Trinity 2, and to say we played like demons while chatting up the crowd like twin demented Johnny Carsons would be an understatement, for we were in true survival mode: failure could mean starvation. 


Thus began my love affair with “the mountains” and it’s never ended. Growing up on the banks of the Slaney, I’m a seacoast man myself, but once the Irish Alps get in your blood there’s no getting away from them.


We didn’t even visit the nearby metropolis of East Durham that whole summer; for we performed 6 nights a week, played poker until way beyond dawn, slept like lambs, and lay on the rocks beneath a nearby mini-waterfall while nursing our hangovers through the steamy afternoons; not to mention we partook of 3 square meals a day courtesy of the angelic, if brusque, Mrs. O’Shea who felt we both needed “to pack on some pounds before yer mammies see yez again.”


Old Gerry ran a tight ship but drink was free to musicians, as long as you didn’t overdo it. What more could you ask for – 3 months in an upstate Eden to think, write new songs, and press re-start? 


There was one drawback, Gerry had been a noted boxer, and loved to throw a ramrod-stiff jab at your shoulder – he would then check upon your bruises the following day.


It was until the Black 47 era that I got to play the capital of the Alps, East Durham, and that came courtesy of the wonderful Handel family at the rip-roaring Blackthorne Resort.


Though we played midnights until whenever on Memorial Weekend Fridays and Saturdays for 20 years - with a headlining gig at the East Durham Irish Festival in-between - the days seemed to stretch forever and I loved to stroll the country roads or sit on Connemara-style stony walls and wonder about the first Irish who settled there.


Do yourselves a favor, go up to the Catskills for a couple of days full of long nights. It’s like going home, you’ll meet friends you never knew you had, and as Canned Heat put it, “the water tastes like wine.” 


I’m not sure they were right about “staying drunk all the time,” but there will be wild moments ahead of you in those glorious mountains. Tell them I sent you – and don’t sleep near the rooster!