By Murphy DaRocha
All music is good live. But, like all well-meaning people, I had gone through the various phases of country music rejection. Some might deem the Revue a country crew, but I feel that inadequate classification would be an inattentive typecast. Reducing the Sunday Night Revue to a single genre or descriptor would be a disservice. Never before has the comfort of strangers felt so warm.
Large sheets of plexiglass hung from chains on the ceiling like a synthetic butcher’s shop. Lights reflected behind them, creating for all of us the same kind of blurred visualization of those who should wear glasses but don’t. The suspended sheets have since been removed, but the sweaty self-reflection remains. Otherwise unassuming, Irene’s is a pub that will reflect your assumptions, but on Sunday nights, Irene’s becomes a time capsule.
When you start coming to Irene’s, Sunday becomes your most anticipated day of the week. At 8:30pm, the house lights will dim to illuminate the blithesome Birdie Whyte and her banjo. Having been to more Sundays at Irene’s than I can count on my hands, I can tell you with near certainty that she will be joined in the opening act by Ottawa’s own Sonny Aiken and New-Brunswick-born C.A. Jackson.
Birdie radiates an otherworldly kind of beauty. She once told me she loved me, and those three words have kept me warm throughout this Ottawa winter. The song “Long Tall Mama” could have been written about her. She towers over the rest, casting a shadow of comfort over the breadth of the bar.
C.A. is a virtuoso. In between songs, he can be charismatic and jovial, but when his hand locks on the neck of a stringed instrument, his fingers take on the likeness of the most precise kind of mechanization. With the most vocal breadth, C.A.’s range and infallible ability to harmonize culminates as the bread on the Sunday sandwich.
Sonny is arguably the most prolific in the pack. Before the world-shattering event in March of 2020 that put the hopes of live music on hold, Sonny was returning home from a world tour. He had been performing in the cowboy musical Saloon, where it seems possible that he could have supplied his own wardrobe. While C.A’s suspenders are convincing, it is Sonny’s influence that makes Sundays feel like theatre.
It has been said that anyone born in New Brunswick is drawn to one another when far from home, like a magnetic hill. Perhaps it is Maritime magnetism that drew Marc Albert and Sal to this crowd. When all five musicians take the stage, the only thing preventing me from feeling like I’ve been transported back to the East Coast is the lack of Oland Export on tap.
Marc looks most comfortable in hip waders—the only one of the five that could be described as bellowing. There’s something about him that seems out of place compared to the others, but it could just be that he’s the only one likely to wear blue jeans and an untucked shirt. Marc’s melancholy is quelled only by Stan Rogers or singin’ about cars.
Sweet like Vimto syrup and subtly complicated, it’s Sal’s voice that I would have chosen to send to the moon. Sal mainly sings his own songs, with lyrics ranging from sublime to salacious. On stage, he often stands solo or at the edge of the others, harmonica in hand. Unlike the others, Sal is rarely joined by instrumentation other than his own. Occasionally joined in harmony (routinely by C.A.), his songs are no lesser from the lack of strings.
I came to Irene’s with trepidation, longing to hear live music and regain a sense of normalcy since moving away from the virtually COVID-free Nova Scotia. In anticipation of the move, I was inundated by characterizations of the “COVID spit pit” that Ontario supposedly was. Not wanting to be swallowed up by Ford’s COVID-greased lips, I stayed inside. The first time I went to Irene’s was the first time I was able to venture out into Ottawa… What I didn’t expect was to walk into Irene’s for the first time and never leave.
The Sunday Night Revue takes place every Sunday at Irene’s Pub (885 Bank Street) from 8:30pm to 11:30pm. Admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis.