Thirty years ago in 1985, a woman by the name of Irene Corey opened the doors to her modest-sized pub in the then up-and-coming neighbourhood on Bank Street called The Glebe. Originally called, “Cap’n Pinky’s”, it bore the charm of a cozy, rustic Maritime seaboard local, which rapidly became home to a regular clientele in this large residential district. Many simply referred to the place then as “Irene’s”, and before long the name stuck.
Live music found its way onto the scene quickly, with local musicians who wanted to play there. Lonesome Paul, who was one of the first, performed on Sundays, with the help of Mark Valcourt (CKCU), who brought in a small PA and ran the sound. Tables and chairs would be moved from the corner of the back area to serve as a stage platform. This tradition continues today with the Sunday Sessions, which highlights a local artist on a residency of Sundays for one month.
Ten years ago, Irene Corey sold her business to Frank and Sharon Johnson, who wanted to preserve the pub and carry on its tradition of live music. The reins of running the business would eventually be turned over to their daughter and son-in-law, Kara-Lee and Alex Golota. Alex’s technical skill as a lighting tech, his years of experience with live shows, and a wealth of of connections in the industry would help to bring Irene’s into its next phase as a serious live music establishment. Audio tech collegues, Gilles Lucien, Doug Miller, and others would add their expertise to cover all the bases for sound. Initial investments were made into building a large stage along the back wall, as well as the installation of a full in-house PA system. Three years ago, supporting posts were replaced with steel I-beams to allow for an unobstructed view of the stage. A ramp and accessible washrooms have also been added to facilitate patrons.
Along with local and out-of-town acts booked over the weekend evenings, Irene’s is also home to a thriving open mic scene twice a week, which began some 15 years ago. All Star Blues Thursday nights feature a house band comprised of accomplished musicians, Vince Halfhide, Corky Kealey, and a different host/artist each week who performs a preliminary set to kick things off. These nights are geared to the more serious musician, and need only to speak to either Vince or Corky to join the band onstage. Often times, a who’s who of the city’s talent will check in, turning this into a highly entertaining and well-attended evening. Saturday afternoons from 1-6pm are dedicated to the more acoustic oriented Open Stage, hosted by Geoff Johnson, who keeps a sign-up sheet at the sound booth. Here, you’ll find a regular attendance of the usual suspects, along with a few new faces every once in awhile.
Irene’s has been the birthplace of many artist/band career launches, CD releases, and even band formations. One such band genesis happened during a Sunday Sessions evening with Steve Marriner who invited musicians, Tony Diteodoro and Matt Sobb to jam out some tunes with him onstage. The gelling led to the formation of MonkeyJunk, whose mighty rocking blues material have earned them a Juno in 2012, among their many other accolades. It’s another shining example of why Golota believes it’s important to keep live music going in Ottawa, and to provide a good experience for musicians when they play Irene’s. The pub is also one of the fundraising sites for the Ottawa Blues Society Road To Memphis Band Challenge each year. Golota even makes the pilgrimage down to Memphis in support of the winners, as they enter the highly acclaimed International Blues Challenge.
Beyond the music, the visible artistic flair present surrounds the senses, right down to the preserved etchings scratched into the tables. The walls are adorned with artwork in support of local artists, which further adds to the eclectic charm of the establishment. Sharon Johnson, who herself is an artist, takes charge of highlighting a different artist each month. Ottawa’s skilled signage virtuoso, Andy Brown, whose work is instantly recognizable throughout the city, updates several Specials and Calendar Of Events chalkboards on a monthly basis. His work can also be seen on the Irene’s website.
Irene‘s offers a pub-style menu, the meals of which are prepared from scratch by the passionate kitchen staff. All desserts are made in-house, which change weekly, and fresh meats are brought in from next door’s Glebe Meat Market. A brunch menu is available every Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from 11am until 3pm.
The landscape of Bank Street, in particular the Glebe area, has been undergoing much growth and change in the last several years, including extensive maintenance of watermain systems and roadwork, although this had not deterred patrons from flocking to Irene’s. The recent reconstruction of Lansdowne Park, which includes many new businesses, residential buildings, as well as the new TD Place concert venue, has brought further enhancement and increased traffic flow to this area. This year’s relocation of Ottawa’s Folk Fest (now named CityFolk) to Lansdowne, seeks to also involve Irene’s in a series of after shows during the festival.
Irene’s 30th anniversary celebrations are on-going throughout the year, including a memorabilia exhibit in September. Those with artifacts of the establishment are encouraged to bring them in to have displayed on the walls. You could say Irene’s really belongs to the community who have long supported it and turned it into a thriving social hub of music and activity. It has become a mecca for musicians at home and abroad, expanding its genres across the broad spectrum of blues, folk, rock, bluegrass, and everything in between. It is a host for many charitable events, and continues to grow with new ideas that first and foremost give back to its community.