By Murphy DaRocha
All music is good live. But, like all well-meaning people, I had gone through the various stages of rejecting country music. Some may think of the Revue as a country crew, but I think an inadequate rating would be an inattentive typecast. Reducing Sunday evening Revue to a single genre or descriptor would be a disservice. Never before has the comfort of strangers felt so warm.
Large sheets of Plexiglas hung from the ceiling like a plastic butcher’s shop. Behind them, light bounced off, creating for all of us the same kind of blurry visualization of those who should be wearing glasses, but aren’t. The hanging sheets have since been removed, but the sweaty self-reflection remains. Unassuming otherwise, Irene’s is a pub that reflects your assumptions, but on Sunday evenings, Irene’s becomes a time capsule.
When you come to Irene’s, Sunday will be the day of the week you most look forward to. At 8.30 pm the house lights dim to illuminate the cheerful Birdie Whyte and her banjo. Having spent more Sundays with Irene than I can count on my hands, I can tell you with almost certainty that she will be joined in the opening act by Ottawa’s very own New-Brunswick native Sonny Aiken. CA Jackson†
Birdie radiates an otherworldly beauty. She once told me she loved me, and those three words have kept me warm in Ottawa this winter. The song “Long Tall Mama” could have been written about her. She towers above the rest, casting a shadow of comfort across the width of the bar.
CA is a virtuoso. Between songs he can be charismatic and jovial, but when his hand wraps around the neck of a stringed instrument, his fingers take on the likeness of the most precise form of mechanization. With the most vocal breadth, CA’s range and unerring ability to harmonize culminates like the bread on the Sunday sandwich.
Sonny is arguably the most prolific in the pack. For the earth-shattering March 2020 event that put hopes of live music on hold, Sonny returned home from a world tour. He had performed in the cowboy musical Salon, where it seems possible he could have supplied his own wardrobe. While CA’s suspenders are compelling, it’s Sonny’s influence that makes Sundays feel like theater.
It has been said that anyone born in New Brunswick is drawn to each other when they are far from home, like a magnetic mound. Perhaps it is Maritime magnetism that drew Marc Albert and Sal to this crowd. When all five musicians take the stage, the only thing stopping me from feeling like I’ve been transported back to the East Coast is the lack of Oland Export on tap.
Marc looks best in hip waders – the only one of the five that can be described as roaring. There’s something about him that seems out of place compared to the others, but he could be the only one probably wearing blue jeans and an unpleated shirt. Marc’s melancholy is only suppressed by Stan Rogers or singing about cars.
Sweet as Vimto syrup and subtly complicated, it’s Sal’s voice I would have chosen to send to the moon. Sal mostly sings his own songs, with lyrics ranging from sublime to salacious. On stage he often stands solo or on the edge of the others, harmonica in hand. Unlike the others, Sal is rarely accompanied by instruments other than his own. Occasionally put together in harmony (routinely by CA), his songs are no less the lack of strings.
I came to Irene’s with trepidation, eager to hear live music and regain a sense of normalcy since moving away from virtually COVID-free Nova Scotia. While waiting for the move, I was inundated with characterizations of the “COVID pit pit” that Ontario supposedly was. Not wanting to be gobbled up by COVID-lubricated Fords, I stayed inside. The first time I went to Irene’s was the first time I could go to 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 8:30 PM to 11:30 PM. Admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis.