The Irish Voice talks to some of New York’s most popular Irish musicians about how the virus has changed their livelihoods
COVID-19 has unleashed havoc on Irish America’s favorite live bands and performers. Live and in-person shows were banned for months in New York and are only returning in small increments, but the damage has been long-lasting.
Performing live music in front of a packed house ended abruptly for Shilelagh Law on Sunday, March 8, 2020. The five-man Irish American band from Yonkers, wildly popular in New York and points beyond, played its annual St. Patrick’s gig at Empire Casino located on their home turf, a tradition they’ve enjoyed for several years, as have their fans who always turn out in droves for some pre-17th revelry.
But something called the coronavirus was lurking in the background and growing more worrisome by the day. And just about everything in New York was shutting down at frightening speed.
“When we left Empire that evening we really had no idea that that it would be our last live show. But as we quickly found out, it was like flipping a light switch from on to off,” Kevin McCarthy, Shilelagh Law’s piano accordion player, told the Irish Voice during an interview last weekend.
The month of March is like Christmas every day for Irish musicians and performers who are booked well in advance for St. Patrick’s season concerts, parades and other events. But March 2020 was a wipeout, especially in New York where Covid-19 cases were escalating by the day and downstate was suffering through the worst of the spread.
Shilelagh Law had numerous March appearances planned – parades in Pearl River and Yonkers, and other shows too. All of them were canceled, some in the initial hope that they would be rescheduled in the autumn when Covid would be reduced to a bad memory. That, of course, hasn’t happened.
What to do when a band is separated from its live fans? Like so many other performers Shilelagh Law has moved its music online for a few virtual shows. They’ve worked out well, McCarthy says, but they’re not a substitute for the roar of a live audience screaming and singing along to every song.
“Online shows have been a new experience for us, and it’s been fun. At least we can interact somewhat with our fans,” McCarthy adds.
“But they are no substitute for a live concert with the band and our fans. It’s like baseball games – you can pipe in the crowd noise and people’s faces on screen. But you can’t truly interact with them.”
Shilelagh Law was formed in 1998, its roots firmly planted in the Irish American enclaves of Yonkers and the Bronx. Its members – McCarthy and his brother Denny on fiddle, an All-Ireland champion in many disciplines; bass player Steve Gardner; Terry Brennan on bodhran; and Rich Popovic on acoustic guitar – all have “day” jobs. Kevin is a retired NYPD officer; a couple of the other guys are with the FDNY, one is a teacher and the other a stay at home dad who also does carpentry.
Gigging with Shilelagh Law was never meant to be the members’ main source of income, though for sure the extra revenue helped pay the bills. “Shilelagh Law is fun for all of us, and we are able to make some bucks, but the band is more for the experience,” McCarthy says.
Shilelagh Law did a “Virtually Broke” online show on August 14, in which the band accepted contributions in a Venmo virtual tip jar. More than 17,000 viewed the show and fans interacted with 1,000-plus comments on Facebook. One fan was a real diehard, a new father posting a photo with his 12-hour-old newborn daughter from the hospital, with the concert on in the background.
Next up for Shilelagh Law is a halfway to St. Patrick’s Day event -- again, virtual – on Sunday, September 20 at 4 p.m. A tip jar will be available for those inclined to donate.
“We need BIG numbers of people to tune-in (and maybe even, dare we say DONATE *yikes* a little sumptin' sumptin into the tip jar during the show so we can possibly do another one...or maybe even a couple more, if we're lucky,” a message on the band’s Facebook page says.
But at the end of the day, McCarthy and his bandmates can’t wait to start performing live again in front of a flesh and blood audience – following all social distancing protocols.
The popular Long Island venue Mulcahy’s is a possibility; perhaps a warm-up show in Yonkers is also on the horizon, McCarthy adds. The bars and restaurants throughout the five boroughs have been battered by the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, and Shilelagh Law feels their pain.
“Honestly, our hearts are broken for our friends who have restaurants and bars. It’s very difficult to see their doors closed,” he says.
“What we want is to get back to our fans and friends, and be in the same venue with them. Nothing will ever replace that.”
JOHN Walsh, guitarist for Irish trad band Jameson’s Revenge and a solo performer as well, had planned on splitting his summer between America and his second home in Co. Kilkenny. Summer festivals were lined up here with the band, and he had some shows booked in Ireland too.
Walsh returned to Ireland in April and hasn’t been back to New York since. With the lack of live shows, there’s no immediate reason to hop on a plane. And it saddens him to no end.
“I’ve been playing music since I was 13 or 14. Luckily I still have all my limbs, but this lack of live performances, for me anyway, I imagine that it’s similar to losing a limb. It’s awful really,” Walsh told the Irish Voice.
“I was talking to another guitarist friend of mine in New York about what is going on, and I was telling him that for the first time in 40 years the tops of my fingers are sore when I pick up a guitar because now I don’t play as much. I’m doing a bit of recording, but it’s not the same as being out there every night.”
Walsh, who was born in the Bronx and raised in Co. Kilkenny from the age of 10 – he returned to New York in his mid-twenties – was as busy as he wanted to be as an in-demand musician. Between his gigs with Jameson’s Revenge and session appearances around New York and further afield with other artists like fiddler Brian Conway, Walsh was performing five nights a week. His recording studio, Noreside in Yonkers, was also a hive of activity where many artists came to produce their work.
“My plan has always been to go back and forth between New York and Ireland. Being a musician is a job that I always wanted to have, and I’ve been very lucky that I got to play with people who are just exceptional musicians,” says Walsh.
Jameson’s Revenge was formed back in 2006, with Denny McCarthy, fiddler for Shilelagh Law – he works back and forth between the bands – the chief organizer. “Denny is a huge force. He’s just great and he’s got a really big heart,” says Walsh.
But McCarthy’s heart is breaking right now for the state of his beloved industry. “It is an almost dire situation for many of the musicians we know and work with around these parts,” he told the Irish Voice.
“Being out of work due to the shutdown has potentially done irreversible damage to the local live music scene. Speaking on behalf of Jameson’s Revenge, I know we absolutely depend/thrive off the interaction we can only get with a live audience at a pub or music venue or festival.”
McCarthy agrees that health and safety is paramount, but adds that the lack of any kind of plan in New York to open live venues and pubs is disturbing and growing more economically harmful by the day.
“While we understand the public health concerns and the need for the initial shutdown to flatten the curve, the longer our industry is forbidden to come back even in the smallest of ways the harder it will be for the bars and venues to bring back the music on a regular basis,” McCarthy adds.
“Without Covid this was already a difficult business to be in both for the bars and musicians. With the restrictions still in place six months later in New York it's almost a death blow. It may be a long time still before the bars and venues are able to afford to bring back music once that are allowed to reopen for indoor business.”
Performing virtually for tips can’t cut it economically or creatively for live acts, McCarthy says.
“Many are performing online and playing for tips, but unfortunately this is not a substitute for the real thing and more often than not it never translates into the same amount a musician might earn thanks to a real live audience out at a show.”
Being back in Ireland these past few months has been an eye-opener for Walsh, and not in a good way he says. The music scene there is in even worse shape, he feels, because of the near complete collapse of this year’s tourist season.
“So many places have been closed because of the lockdowns and pubs not open. And when you go out, which my wife and I only recently did for dinner about two weeks ago, you’ve got to sign in for 90 minutes only. It’s very, very different,” Walsh says.
“And what I’m also seeing in Ireland, which is very sad, is that a lot of instruments and equipment is for sale on local buy and sell sights.”
A few years back, when venues started to close or cut back because of exorbitant fixed costs like rent, a friend of Walsh’s had an observation that stuck in his mind.
“He said the music is going back to where it came from. It’s going back into people’s kitchens. It’s a lovely way of seeing things for now, but I have no doubt that we will get through this and the rebirth will be awesome. Musicians are still working on their craft, and all I can say is that there will be some incredible music heard once the leash is released.”
McCarthy agrees, and is raring to get going.
“One day this will be over, and there isn’t a musician out there we know who isn’t looking forward to coming back and performing in the flesh. We just genuinely hope those people miss us as much as we miss them,” he says.
BETWEEN his successful annual Caribbean cruise, touring the country with his band, holiday shows at Carnegie Hall, recording music with the likes of country star Larry Gatlin, entertaining at private events and maintaining a mailing list that numbers well over 50,000, Andy Cooney is never idle.
He still isn’t. But some of what he’s been doing to occupy his days since the lockdown has been different for sure, he admits to the Irish Voice.
“My wife had a honey-do list of things around the house that have finally been taken care of,” Cooney, a Long Islander, laughs.
“I had no idea that I actually had these skills! I fixed a shed in our backyard that needed to be leveled by almost a foot, and I put siding on it. So that was fun!”
Cooney, one of the most popular performers on the Irish American music scene, hasn’t turned into one of the Property Brothers for good. He’s returned to live performing under controlled circumstances, with all social distancing mandates in place and reduced crowds.
When the Irish Voice spoke to Cooney on Monday he was in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on his way back from an outdoor performance. He returned to live events during the July 4 weekend, playing at Gavin’s in the Catskills, and he’s had no problem so far adjusting to the new normal.
“The stage outside at Gavin’s works very well. So we’ve been able to successfully operate and social distance. I’m quite enjoying the outdoors to be honest,” Cooney says.
“We have been very fortunate with the weather. It’s a nice situation and Gavin’s might do more outdoors next year.”
Cooney’s March was jam packed with sold out performances all over the country, but March 10 marked the end of his St. Patrick’s celebrations. “I do a song, ‘Happy Are We All Together,’ and we usually have everyone holding hands. That night everybody touched elbows instead,” Cooney recalls.
More than a dozen of his shows were nixed during March alone. The income hit was “substantial,” said Cooney.
So back home to Long Island he went. Outside of house repairs, Cooney spent much time composing new music and recorded a song and video with his son, Ryan, titled “We’re All in This Together,” a feel-good tune to help his fans get through the worst of times. It’s also a tribute to all front line workers.
“We wrote the song and recorded the video within five weeks and it turned out great,” Cooney says.
He’s also been enjoying success on the Irish country charts with his new single, “Come Tennessee Me Tonight,” recorded with country and Grand Ole Opry legend Larry Gatlin. Cooney has known Gatlin for quite some time, and in February they got together while Andy was passing through Nashville, on his way home from his annual Cruise of Irish Stars.
Cooney noticed Gatlin’s Tennessee license plate, and a song came to him. “I asked Larry, ‘Anybody ever write a song called ‘Come Tennessee Me Tonight?’ And he said he didn’t think so, but that we were going to write it that night.”
That’s exactly what they did. They laid the vocals in Nashville and sent the track back to Jonathan Owens in Granard, Co. Longford, the top country music producer in Ireland “because I really wanted an Irish jive feel,” Cooney says. A video is also set to drop next week, he adds.
Cruise ships bore the brunt of the coronavirus when it first came to light, with horror stories about several liners quarantining passengers for days. Cruising is set to return later this year under strict control, and Cooney’s 23rd annual Cruise of Irish Stars will sail as scheduled from Fort Lauderdale to the Western Caribbean on January 16, 2021.
The Cooney cruise always attracts a sold-out crowd. For 2021, his original bookings of 1,000 are now down to 500 because of cancellations, all of which were refunded by Princess Cruises.
“The cruise lines are really going out of their way to accommodate people and make them feel comfortable,” says Cooney, who will perform on the cruise along with Ronan Tynan, the Druids and more.
The liner can sail at 50 percent capacity. Cooney is hoping that all will proceed according to plan.
“You know, it’s very hard to worry about things you cannot control. So we are moving forward. I can’t worry, but I can promote it as much as I can.”
Facebook Live shows have been a pleasant surprise for Cooney. He did one not long after lockdown began, and was surprised to hear his wife Susanna report that as the show went on, the number of viewers escalated rapidly.
“It went from 700 to 800 to thousands,” he says. “So I found that was a really great way to stay in touch with people from all over actually. I’ll do another one in the fall.”
Performing live, though, will always be unbeatable for Cooney. And he fears for the businesses and venues that have been harmed by the Covid-19 restrictions, many of them irreparably.
“It’s unreal. You know, we understand the seriousness of the coronavirus, we don’t want to get it, but it’s hard to be told that you cannot work. Businesses are being destroyed,” he adds.
“We can wear masks, we can adhere to restrictions, but people are hurting and this needs to be understood.”
Cooney, meanwhile, will keep on singing. He’s got a number of live, socially distanced events coming up; visit www.andycooney.com for dates.
It’s been an unforgettable 2020, that’s for sure. “I told my son, between the pandemic and politics, you will never in your lifetime see another year like this. At least I hope not,” Cooney said.