New York is slowly opening its doors again to musicians and fans of live music after a year of Covid hell. Debbie McGoldrick speaks to some performers about what it feels like to get the instruments ready for in-person shows.
When you go from playing around 300 live gigs a year to approximately 20, the Covid reality for Irish musician Allen Gogarty who is based in New York, life takes an unexpected harsh turn.
You’ve got to make ends meet by driving for Uber Eats and other food delivery services. You pick up jobs here and there in furniture moving. Government relief via stimulus checks or enhanced unemployment benefits isn’t available because you’re on a work visa and you’re not entitled to an official hand up.
But you never give up hope that someday you’ll hear the live applause of an audience again, no matter how small or masked or socially distanced.
And that’s what’s happening, very slowly but surely, for New York’s favorite Irish performers who are re-appearing on the scene as venues start to open up and warmer weather is on the horizon.
“To be honest, it’s like a blessed relief,” Co. Meath native Gogarty tells the Irish Voice. “And I appreciate the live audience so much more because we’ve been apart for so long.”
Kevin McCarthy, the accordion player for one of the biggest Irish American bands, Shilelagh Law, echoes those sentiments.
“We are banging on the door now. We can’t wait to see everybody, and for mental health reasons at this point, we all need a good night out to sing and dance and hug each other,” he says.
As the vaccine rollout accelerates throughout the U.S. and Covid restrictions loosen in New York’s bars, restaurants, and venues, more locations are opening their doors and booking live music for their patrons in accordance with safety protocols. To be sure it’s a process and a long one.
The artists the Irish Voice spoke to expressed optimism for the future, but not in immediate terms. It’s still an uphill battle compared to the good old times.
“Normally in March, I would play a lot of nursing homes and senior citizen centers for the St. Patrick’s season. But this year – not one,” bagpiper Robert Lynch, based on Long Island, told the Irish Voice.
“But Memorial Day is coming and I hope and expect our live parade in Glen Cove will happen. And I’ll be there.”
MARCH is usually manna for Andy Cooney, the Irish American musician, and entrepreneur from Long Island who is a one-man stop and shop for all things Ireland.
He hosts annual vacations and cruises to the Caribbean, Ireland and wider Europe which are chock full of Irish entertainment; he and his band are live entertainment fixtures up and down the East Coast, especially during the St. Patrick’s season; and he’s part of the New York Tenors group of three singers that used to regularly perform together, until Covid.
“I haven’t played an indoor show since last March,” Cooney tells the Irish Voice of his unwelcome live concert career break. “We were in the Catskills last summer outdoors at Gavin’s, and that’s where I’ll be again for St. Patrick’s long weekend.”
Gavin’s Irish Country Inn in East Durham, an all-inclusive resort in the Irish neck of the upstate New York Catskills, is a Cooney mainstay with an expansive outdoor space and an indoor venue that has hosted the most popular Irish bands throughout the years.
In usual months of March, Cooney would be working every night until the 22nd in a different city with his musical colleagues, playing the famous favorites like “Danny Boy” for the holiday.
But Cooney hasn’t played indoors for an audience since March 10, 2020, when he was with his band in Florida and the coronavirus was rapidly shutting the world down. Some of Cooney’s co-stars lived in Ireland, so the priority was getting them on airplanes back home before the lockdown.
“I could sit and talk about all the money we didn’t make. I hate to say all the money I lost,” Cooney says.
“I’m not the only one in this boat. Every musician is going through it.”
The shows he and his band have missed are many: a 2021 cruise to the Caribbean canceled, his annual December concert in Carnegie Hall, and so many other appearances. But Cooney remains an optimist and is buoyed by a hopefully busy summer in the Catskills that will kick off with his first live indoor shows in a year, at Gavin’s, starting on St. Patrick’s Day and continuing through Saturday, March 20.
“I’m totally fine with playing indoors and I’m starting to lean the other way with Covid,” Cooney says.
“I wear a mask always and do what I have to do to stay safe. We have to be careful, especially for our senior citizens. But has our government really known what to do? I don’t think so.
“The restrictions have gone on a long time and much has been lost. I still think we are Americans and we live in a free country.”
Though he’s enjoyed the virtual shows he’s performed, there’s nothing like feedback from a live audience, Cooney says. Though his summer Catskills season is filling up, other bookings remain slow as the re-opening inches along.
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Cooney’s tour of Ireland set for October of this year is still a go, so far. He’ll wait until June to see if Ireland, under a strict lockdown until April, is more open to tourists by the autumn, but his Caribbean cruise in February 2022 is already selling great – fueled, he feels, by a pent-up demand for post-coronavirus fun.
“I think by May we are going to have a huge dent against Covid,” Cooney says of the vaccines, “and people are really going to want to go out and have a good time.”
ALLEN Gogarty started playing in front of a few fans live – a very few fans – just before Valentine’s Day last month. Prior to that his last in-person feedback was a few outdoor festival appearances last summer.
For a constantly busy Irish singer and guitarist, the grinding halt to his usual routine was jarring. It ended with a slew of canceled shows just before St. Patrick’s Day 2020.
Looking for an outlet to connect, Gogarty played an impromptu Facebook concert on March 17, and was pleasantly surprised by the feedback.
“It was pretty basic and raw, but between everything we got about 4,000 people who tuned in,” he said. “So I thought that maybe there could be something in this type of connection.”
And there was, for sure – Gogarty did a series of virtual shows that eventually attracted fans from as far away as California, Texas, and Australia. Some encouraged him to utilize an online tip jar, which he did to success, but still, there was no making up for the hundreds of live shows that no longer existed, and no substitute for the in-person fan experience.
“I was actually flabbergasted by the support online, and I still do it because people look forward to it, but it’s a different thing altogether to playing live,” Gogarty says.
“There’s really nothing like being with an audience face to face. I find that I appreciate it so much more and I don’t take it for granted now. And I don’t think that the audiences do either. They are happy to be out and enjoying themselves.”
Gogarty usually purchases a 12-month diary to keep a handwritten schedule of his appearances for the upcoming year. When 2021 started he had no need “because I had nowhere to go,” he says.
But now, gigs are starting to trickle in. He’s been playing at the Wolfhound in Astoria, Keane’s in Woodlawn, and the Wild Goose in Woodside, where he’ll be on St. Patrick’s afternoon before heading up to Terry Connaughton’s Riverdale Steakhouse in the Bronx that evening.
New York’s Covid shutdown began on March 16 of 2020. That it’s more or less still in place for live venues and musicians is unbelievable to Gogarty, who initially thought, like the rest of us, that we’d be out of the woods in a matter of weeks.
“It’s a slow getting back to normal,” he says. “Things are starting to look up, but do I expect to be back playing 300 times a year? I really don’t think so, and I’m not sure that I want to be.
“Maybe it’s time to focus on smaller gigs in venues where people are coming specifically to see me perform. I’m not sure that I’m there at that level but it’s something to consider. There’s a lot to consider after Covid, but for sure, performing in front of fans live will always be tops.”
SHILELAGH Law shut down operations a year ago after its March concert at Empire Casino in Yonkers. The band members have seen each other only virtually since, and the separation is ticking them off.
“I’m an eternal optimist but this long shutdown is getting to me, seeing the old parade and concert photos on Facebook,” Shilelagh Law accordionist Kevin McCarthy tells the Irish Voice.
The mega-popular band has tentative plans to reunite within the next couple of months, but for now, given the size of their group – five members – and their hardcore following, the smaller Irish venues that are opening can’t accommodate their performances.
“What you are seeing now is the one, two or three-piece bands in places where they can spread out,” McCarthy says. “And that’s great. It’s like one eye-opening, a stretching of the legs.”
Shilelagh Law, which would have played around 50 live shows during the past 12 months that were nixed because of Covid, is hoping to re-acquaint itself to live fans in the spring.
“We have a bunch of possibilities. For sure we will be playing live,” says McCarthy, noting that the band’s usual appearance at the New York Mets Irish Heritage Night at Citi Field in Flushing is a go for Friday, August 13.
“We’ve done some virtual shows with Shilelagh Law but there’s nothing like seeing the faces in person. We really can’t wait to see our fans again,” McCarthy says.
McCarthy has played some sessions and has kept in regular contact with his accordion “because it’s not like riding a bike, you have to keep playing and practicing,” he says.
Virtual St. Patrick’s shows are planned with a number of other bands – visit Shilelagh Law NYC on Facebook for more information – but the more vaccines in arms, the quicker Shilelagh Law can get back to live business, McCarthy says.
“It’s going to be a real Roaring Twenties when everything opens and we all can finally connect again,” he feels.
THE pipes are usually calling in March for those who play the bagpipes, including Robert Lynch, a Long Island-based attorney who also moonlights as a bagpiper who specializes in Irish traditional music.
In a usual year Lynch would play at least 100 different events, “and I’d make more some weeks than being an attorney,” he laughs.
Covid wiped out at least 50 percent of his business in 2020. St. Patrick’s week, unsurprisingly, is always among the busiest, with appearances at nursing homes and senior centers booked well in advance.
But not this year. “There’s been nothing because of Covid protocols,” Lynch says.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, some of Lynch’s bookings these past 12 months have been funerals where the deceased died of Covid. He’s also played at some outdoor drive-by events booked by people looking for a little Irish to brighten their days.
“And I’ve done some Facebook things, but now that people are getting vaccinated I think we’re turning a corner,” Lynch says.
There won’t be a St. Patrick’s parade in his hometown of Glen Cove this year. But Memorial Day will, he feels, be an occasion where he can break out the bagpipes.
“I think we’ll be ready and able for it by then,” Lynch says.