Mona’s Intriguing Charm
by Paul Keating
Mona’s Pub is a Mahattan dive bar that doesn’t even
have a name displayed on the outside. It has produced some of the
best session music in the city, and now its been captured on CD.
THE oh-so-trendy “Session Consultant” who might unknowingly
stray into Mona’s Pub on a late Monday night in Alphabet City
on Manhattan’s Lower East Side would recoil in horror. Could
it be possible that one of world’s legendary Irish music haunts
would operate under such adverse conditions? Musicians are crammed
into a corner table, midway in the small dingy pub, with a bar full
of people watching sports on TV.
There is an active pool league in the backroom drawing young denizens
from the now fashionable neighborhood. Then there’s the large,
intrusive and noisy ventilation system that lies right across from
where some of the finest Irish musicians in the world squeeze into
in a corner.
Welcome to the little session that could, and has, succeeded in
producing some of the best Irish music to be heard in New York City
for over a decade. And, remarkably, the surroundings actually place
the music smack dab in the middle of the overnight action every
Monday into Tuesday.
Dubliners Eamon O’Leary and Emmet Henry teamed up over a decade
ago to pitch the idea of a trad session in a sixty year-old punk
bar (which has no name outside) on Avenue B between 13th and 14th
Street. Picking a Monday night when business was slow anyway and
then starting at the craic of 11 p.m. seemed to be a minimal risk
for the Italian American owner (Richie Corton) who entrusted the
care and tending of the weekly session to his barman, Emmet Henry,
who was familiar with traditional music.
He enlisted O’Leary —known as a guitarist and singer—
to start it up and within a year, fiddler Patrick Ourceau joined
Eamon as the session regulars who also serve as the musical hosts
and organizers. Irish musicians are nocturnal by nature and turning
night into day while sharing tunes breeds contentment— if
not necessarily wealth —and Eamon and Patrick soon hit on
the key elements to making Mona’s a singular session.
John Casey, an inveterate and keen observer of the Manhattan session
scene since arriving over 30 years ago from Cork, succinctly articulated
the essence of Mona’s appeal last Monday evening when we were
both in attendance. The most important ingredient is a barman who
likes the music. Emmet is the one who got the traditional session
in here and he’s not pushed to turn the jukebox on to ruin
Mondays are a good night because a lot of musicians are off and
the late session hours help keep more annoying musicians like bodhran
players away. Lastly the corner in Mona’s helps anchor the
acoustic session because the musicians who are playing are out of
the flow of traffic and close enough to be able to hear one another.
All those aspects are true but the real draw to Mona’s Pub
is the deft handling of the music by O’Leary and Ourceau,
who have turned the corner table into a musical common ground where
devoted musicians can share their love of the music. Their understated
personalities allow them to let the music breathe and flow on its
own terms and the musicians who muster on a given week now include
the talented fiddler Dana Lyn.
The absence of the ticking clock gives an unhurried charm to the
music because they have all night to play it and often do until
the cows come home (the bar stops serving at 4 a.m. but the inhabitants
have been known to emerge as day is breaking).
Last month, a marvelous CD package was released entitled Live At
Mona’s: Traditional Irish Music from New York’s Lower
Side, after a nine-month labor of love (and probably exasperation
at times given the hours of live recordings to choose from)
They were encouraged by Dr. Mick Moloney to chronicle the venue
as the longest running continuous session now in New York City.
The end result features 14 musicians (principally O’Leary,
Ourceau, Lyn, Brendan Dolan on piano and Brian Holleran on flute)
who participated in the live recording.
For a live session recording, I was struck by their ability to capture
the tasteful and sympathetic rendering of the music by the lead
players and accompanists. This is no helter-skelter mad frenzied
session at play, but music played for its own enjoyment in this
space and time.
You may not be able to hack the late weeknight hours at the outset
of a work week but this recording allows you to join this secret
society of music lovers anytime you wish. It is available for $15
at Mona’s and also available online at www.liveatmonas.com