Happy 25, Paddy Reilly’s!

A Black 47 gig in the early days of the bar.


Let me join the cast of thousands in toasting the crowd at Paddy Reilly’s on Second Avenue in New York for an amazing 25 years of serving nothing but Guinness on tap, and nothing but the best in Irish music!

The venue has been hosting a number of celebrations to mark the date in 1986 when the famed Irish balladeer opened the place up and hung his name on it. Black 47 will make a return to the bar on April 30 to pay tribute to the place where it all started for them.

Wow. I wish I had this 25 years ago, when I wasn’t quite legal and desperate to get inside the doors of the place! Security was tight, which added to the mystique -- the entertainment inside might have consisted of an old banjo player passing gas, but when you were stuck on the outside with a line full of people thirsty for a pint lining around the block, the mystique about what you were missing inside made it the hot spot of Manhattan.

Of course, a second-rate banjo player would never be allowed to ply his trade on this sacred ground. Paddy Reilly’s was the launching pad for the best and brightest musicians of our culture. Black 47, the Prodigals and the Mickey Finns are just some of the artists that have been launched by the venerable bar.

“It’s really the original Irish music bar out there and it still has a good name,” says publicist and Irish music promoter Anita Daly, head of Daly Communications, when asked to comment about Paddy Reilly’s and the music scene. “There are a lot of bands outside of New York who are anxious to play there because it means you’ve broken the Big Apple. I always try to work new musicians in there because the scene there is good and the craic is always great.

“People that go to Paddy Reilly’s really go there to listen to music; it’s not just people going to the bar to watch TV. It’s really all about the music and the performance there.” For Black 47‘s Larry Kirwan, there is a sense of coming home when he plays there. “We got a lot of resistance on our sound when we first started out but we got 40-50 fans amassed in each borough during those early days,” he recalls.

“We then got some fans in Connecticut and Jersey. The Jersey folks would never come see us in the Bronx, but they all descended at Paddy Reilly’s. “It really came together for us there and we could be sure to pack the house. That created this ‘in scene’ that produced good publicity at a time when we really needed it.”

Kirwan explains how the Wednesday and Saturday night gigs were critical in building band buzz. “Our plan was to play two nights a week there just to build that reliable fan base.  It paid off in the long run because when someone in the New York press needed something to write about, there was a guaranteed scene for someone to report on. You would get a Matt Dillon
or a Neil Young dropping by. It was great times.”

If Yankee Stadium is the house that Babe Ruth built, then Paddy Reilly’s is the bar that general manager Steve Duggan built into the New York musical cornerstone it is today. I’m holding the man’s business card and it is very telling. There is a joke. Under his name are the initials N.F.D.A.A. Ask the man what those credentials stand for and he’ll say “no f***ing degree a’tall a’tall!”

The back of the card doubles as a coupon for a free drink ticket, which expires December 2012. The Cavan native’s card is laminated and has the words “special guest” emblazoned on the bottom, which makes it a VIP card. Flash this at the door and it tells everyone that you know the owner. The joke, the art of the deal, and the slick charm on the card is the true representation of the man.

“He is very astute in that way and he is a very good promoter,” Kirwan says of Duggan. “He also booked us years ago. He was sending us to Irish festivals that were used to Paddy Reilly and the Wolfe Tones. It caused a huge stir at the time. “He saw the change coming in Irish rock. He would strong-arm us in the set --‘You want Paddy Reilly, you gotta book Black 47, too!’ You can’t beat a Cavan man for cutting a deal!

“Steve was open to anything. His natural impulse wasn’t rock and roll. When he saw what we were doing he was instantly aware of the opportunity.”

“We generally play much larger venues – in New York City alone we’ve played Webster Hall, Lincoln Center and B.B. King’s, and we just headlined the House of Blues in Cleveland for Paddy’s Day, but no venue has been more important to the band in terms of growing, developing new material and just providing a warm home in a peripatetic existence,” reasons Greg Grene of the Prodigals.

“We simply could not have become the band we did without Steve and Paddy's. Paddy's and Prodigals, like love and marriage, or perhaps more accurately eggs and bacon -- you can't have one without the other.  Here's to many, many more years!”

“We must be doing something right to be here 25 years,” asserts Duggan pragmatically. “You need to work hard, marketing and managing the bar, plain and simple. We’re sticking to the music, hosting something seven nights. “We have bluegrass, jazz, and Niall O’Leary is our Irish night on Thursdays with the Riverdancers and Lord of the Dancers joining him.

“The harder the times, the better the music has to be and we are in hard times now. The music is better than ever. Years ago, you could open the door and people would come in. Now, you have to have some special attraction.”

If Paddy Reilly’s is a music bar, it is also a musician’s bar. “Reilly’s to me was always a place to try things out,” says Kirwan. “We always tried out new songs there and I think they changed the way Irish music was listened to across the U.S. by allowing experiments like that to take place.

“Now it meant that bands coming into an Irish bar might play totally original sets. It was less of a battle to do that because Paddy Reilly’s made it all right. “The first night we did James Connolly in Paddy Reilly’s. We just ran through the sound check. We played it and this normally rowdy crowd remained silent. That is my best memory of Black 47 and Paddy Reilly’s.”

“When I first walked into the pub, Steve Duggan happened to be chatting to Joanie Madden, the legendary flautist/whistle-player,” recalls Grene. “I asked him for a start, and he said, ‘What do you think, Joanie?’ And she said, ‘Sure, Steve, give him a shot!’

“And that was it. Three or four months later we were playing a private party for Christy Turlington aboard a yacht in the Hudson River – real fairytale of New York stuff.”

“Only for bars like Paddy Reilly’s and the Stone Pony are keeping those bands alive, and vice-versa,” says Duggan. “It goes both ways.”

Let’s hoist a pint this week and a silent prayer into the heavens that this relationship of band and bar lasts another 25 years!

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