Pat Conway is clear about who provided the push for Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar. “If it wasn’t for Philip King getting onto me to start it and the City’s deadline to release it, the album might never have been made.”
Conway had opened The Lobby Bar near Union Quay in 1988, and gradually grew it into a respected live music venue until its eventual closure in 2005.
While previous owners of the premises had already used the upstairs section as a music venue with bands playing cover versions, Conway decided to make it, as you would see clearly signposted on the stairs, “a listening venue” that hosted only original music. In the first few years folk and trad music were the main draws with acts like Declan Sinnott, Princes Street, Jimmy Crowley and Scullion taking to the stage.
Fast forward 15 or so years and The Lobby had become a venue with an international pedigree featuring acts as varied as Beth Orton, Acid Mothers Temple and Bonnie Prince Billy while also constantly featuring both emerging and established Irish acts. There would also be an occasional influx from bigger concerts across the road at City Hall, with Bjork among the stars who had quiet pre-gig drinks in the downstairs bar.
Cork's tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2005 was approaching, and Scullion singer King suggested that The Lobby should be involved.
“I was running the venue with gigs most nights - as well as the bar itself, putting on larger gigs as a promoter in other venues and working for MCD with their events, so I was just absolutely too busy for any other projects,” recalls Conway.
“The idea developed until it was became one to record every band from Cork that played in The Lobby during the entire year, to make a document of all the live original music in Cork at that time… so the idea of a single CD ended up being a three-CD collection.” That casual chat with Philip King had quickly turned into a mammoth project.
While Conway had never ruled out the idea of recording in the venue he always held off on it until he was happy with the conditions.
“I’m not a musician and I’m not a sound engineer, but I always wanted a live recording from The Lobby to capture The Lobby in the room. On the album not only do you hear the crowd cheering, you can also sometimes hear the ice clinking, the fire engine going past with the sirens on... all the things you’d experience occasionally in the venue,” says Conway.
Also, technological developments had played their part. “When I started the place 15 years previously the idea of recording each track individually live from the venue to release on record you’d almost need to hire a truck for outside, in 2005 we got a cutting edge piece of technology to do it and 15 years later that desk is almost obsolete!”
While nowadays it would be possible to do a ‘no frills’ version and just output to a laptop and large hard drive, the 2005 project required more work. “We got one of our sound engineers, Justin Forbes, to take over the back section of the venue for the recording, and other engineers to mix the front of house sound. So while the audience were hearing one mix from our PA system, Justin was mixing it ‘live’ for the band to hear later.”
Once again to make the album reflect the ‘of the moment’ nature of live concerts, instead of selecting which song to be used on the CD in advance, the decision was to let the bands decide afterwards. This led to even more work for person behind the recording desk.
Forbes takes up the story: “I used to live-mix each concert and burn it to CD on the night so they could listen back a few times, then afterwards I’d take their favoured track and do whatever tweaks were needed for the final album.”
The triple-album contains 55 tracks, features over 150 musicians, and includes performances from a wide array of Cork acts.
There were people who had been established already or ‘grew up with The Lobby’ such as John Spillane, Hank Wedel & Princes Street, Freddie White, Ger Wolfe and Declan Sinnott (who had been the very first act to play there), but the opening track of the collection is a poem ‘An t’Amhránaí’ recited by Louis De Paor.
The Cork poet referred to it as “a gift of a poem that came to me while I stood at the back of the Lobby watching John Spillane, thinking about how when you took the final step into the venue you were crossing a threshold into another world.”
The whole collection is bookended by John Spillane and his song ‘Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar’, which went on to be covered by Christy Moore. Lyrically the song captures the essence of what the venue and bar was all about, but Conway points out it was very cleverly structured.
“John actually used parts of two songs that had been written and sung by regular performers at the Lobby, one by Ricky Lynch and another by Ger Wolfe.” Both those artists also feature on the album with their songs ‘Shattered’ and ‘The Cracking Radio’ respectively.
The album was also featured many bands who had come to prominence around 2005 itself, such as Fred, Stanley Super 800, Waiting Room, and The Girls Of Summer (full disclaimer: this writer was part of that band).
Two tracks on the collection are standouts for dual reasons, both performed by well known artists with many fans and record sales, but also notable for where this album features on their discographies.
Sinead Lohan’s recording of ‘No Mermaid’ is the last time she has featured on a record, and an early Mick Flannery also featured with ‘Mad Mans Road’, which was recorded for the project before his debut album Evening Train was released.
The combination of emerging talent and hardened veterans on the album ensures it is an important document in Cork's music canon.
- Pat Conway: After The Lobby closed in 2005, went on to be a co-owner in The Pavilion when it reopened in 2008 until it’s closure in 2014. He continues to run live events under the banner of ‘Lobby Promotions’.
- The Lobby Bar on Union Quay has been the wine bar l'Attitude 51 since 2011, occasionally hosting live music. After fire damage in March 2019 it was fully renovated this summer.
- The desk which the entire album was recorded on, a Yamaha 02R, is no longer used for album recording purposes and lives in peaceful semi-retirement in Co Cork.
- Copies of the Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar 3CD box set and the book ‘The Lobby Bar: Music Through The Windows Of Union Quay, Cork’ can be bought at www.lobbypromotions.ie
- For a history of the venue, see The Lobby Bar - Music Through the Windows of Union Quay, by Monica McNamara