Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday
It’s the wettest day in New York for years. The city has officially broken its one-day rainfall record. The rain falls in big plump drops that burst on your skin like ripe fruit. But unlike its Irish counterpart the rain here is warm. Walking through it is comforting. That is until you go inside and the blast chiller of the air conditioning hits you. So our early morning walk is cut short and it’s a sprint back to the flat for warm showers and a change of clothes.
Getting breakfast in the Big Apple is a challenge and not because there’s no choice; quite the opposite. This city is deluged with snack bars, fast food joints, cafés, restaurants and street stalls. We try Balthazars, a popular French café just round the block, but no luck. There’s a steady stream of cabs pulling up outside as those in the know and who’ve made reservations get dropped off, making a quick run through the deluge and in the door. Luckily we’ve packed the laptop and a quick search through yell.com sends up Uptown to The Cluny Café for bacon, eggs, hash browns and coffee. The food is great, a mix of the flavors of the south with a bit of East Coast refinement. The coffee, or ‘Joe’, as it’s called here, gives us that jumpstart to the day with a little NY attitude. Afterwards the girls head off for a few hours of retail therapy and I get to try out some beautiful instruments in one of Bleeker Street’s best music shops. The rain means the shop is empty and so I play for about an hour and a half before we meet for our gig on the 7pm slot at The Back Fence.
The Back Fence is one of the oldest popular music venues in this area. Apparently a young Bob Dylan used to hand out here in the early days. Now the venue, like many others here, are under threat from new zoning laws that will seriously curtail their ability to host live music events. But maybe its day was coming anyhow. Coming here on Friday night, when the place was packed, it felt full of excitement and had a certain edge. Now, quite due to the passing trade having stayed in due to the rain, it looks tired and in its dotage. Small tables covered in checked red and white linoleum surround the old bar, a small candle lit on each. The walls are dark and stained, with the occasional splash of colour being provided by amateur paintings hung sporadically here and there. Homemade red lettering spelling out the venue’s name is nailed to an imitation brown fence pinned to the back wall. Above the small stage, letters carved into wooden train carriages and spelling out ‘The Back Fence’ snake in the air, but their only load is years of dust and neglect. The floor is covered in sawdust. This was a celebrated feature of the pub when patrons could discard their emptied peanut shells there, but today health and safety make the bar serve pretzels instead as this doesn’t attract mice. Still, we’re very excited to be here. We’ve heard that a forthcoming rent review might cause this place to close so we’re genuinely delighted to be able to play this historic venue while the old girl still has some life in her.
Brendan Anthony is here setting up already but we’re pulled to the bar by the arrival of our first fans! A little bit of ‘shake and howdie’ as Red Hickey would put it and we’re ready to go. Our set is forty-five minutes long and as we move through it more and more friends arrive. Dee and Kevin with ‘King’ in tow and a few friendly faces from New York, Donegal, London and elsewhere. Just as we’re beginning our YouTube hit ‘The Flower of Magherally O’ (857 views and counting) the Harkin one makes an appearance. Aw, Nyes Boys! Like ever other gig it’s over almost as soon as it begins but we’ve loved it. The tip jar is empty but our hearts are brimming. Its Bud Light all round as Brendan Anthony takes the stage and treats us to some of Springsteen’s best. Half an hour later we catch a bite, say goodnight to the early risers and head for a session on the East side in two separate cabs.
My directions are hazy but I know the music’s going to be happening at the 11th Street Bar on 11th between A and B Avenue. The taxi strolls down the leafy street as Mary and I keep our eyes peeled for that Mecca of all Irish travellers’, a glowing Guinness sign. There she is and within seconds we’re in a long, dark bar passing the musicians seated in a row on a wooden bench as we walk in. Its pints of the black stuff all round and we sit to enjoy the music. Seated to the right is Tony DeMarco. Yes, you heard it right, that’s ‘DeMarco’. Not exactly the best-known name among Ireland’s long lost sons, but close your eyes and you wouldn’t know it. Tony plays with that beautiful relaxed bowing so typical of Sligo music, but it has the life and excitement of this city. He sits like a man on a throne, throwing subtle shapes as his wrist flicks a bow racing across the singing strings. On the neck of the fiddle towards the bridge is the engraved moniker ‘Tony D’ in curvilinear script. When we arrive he’s flowing through ‘The Flogging Reel’ with two other fiddlers, a bouzouki player and a whistle player. It turns out that the three younger lads on the fiddle and whistle are from the Battlefield Band, one of Scotland’s enduring musical exports and are here on a tour. It isn’t long before we have Laura and Catherine up dancing a highland, reliving the golden days of their Ballyliffin youth. Quinn’s up too singing like a lark in the morning and the night bursts with promise. A white haired man corners me for the chat and I can’t help but recognize something familiar in his accent. When he tells me he once player with Cathal McConnell in the formative Boys of the Lough, the penny drops. It’s Robin Morton, a wonderful collector and singer of Ulster song, whose collection I had the great pleasure of working on almost fifteen years ago. We’re treated to ‘The Orange Girl of Sligo’ and the night flows on like one unbroken reel. New friendships are forged, alliances made, and handshakes wring with the promise to return soon someday. Somewhere in the wee hours we creep back into our apartment for the night, exhausted but happy we’ve seen a great night of Irish music in this most Irish of international cities. Monday the 1st of August seems a long, long ways ago. Did we really do so much in our two short weeks here? It seems we did. Time will let us digest all we’ve seen and heard. That and a camera full of memories, movies taken, soundtracks recorded, CDs bought, emails exchanged, friends met, made and departed from. Our thoughts are bookended with gumbo in that first night in Greensboro and the jigs and reels singing from the throats of fiddles in New York here tonight. It’s been a blast and a pleasure to put it down in words. From the girls and myself, thanks for checking in. We tried to give you a flavor of some of what we did. We’ll be in London tomorrow, flying through the night and into the sunrise. See you on the other side!