Keeping it live at the Lobby

A new book recalls the musical institution on Cork’s Union Quay. Don O’Mahony finds out what made the venue special

FOR more than one generation of Leesiders the public houses on Union Quay, adjacent to the City Hall, hold a special place in Cork’s musical landscape.

For one golden period in the mid-1990s all four establishments on the strip operated in the very definition of harmony. At one end, hip-hop, funk and reggae beats pumped from the Donkey’s Ears, which was at the vanguard of DJ culture in the city. Up from that was the Phoenix, which was the starting out point for any number of young rock bands. Above that again, Charlie’s continues to endure today as a lively spot for blues and folk sessions. And on the corner was the flagship presence of the Lobby. In its 17-year lifespan, this venue built an enviable reputation as a live music venue of substance.

Bouts of misty-eyed nostalgia for that eminent venue are not confined to the patrons who attended gigs there, but the very mention of its name is guaranteed to cause many national and international artists to smile fondly, grateful for having played in such a respectful environment.

A recently-published book, The Lobby Bar: Music Through The Windows of Union Quay, celebrates both the vision of its owner, Pat Conway, and the local musicians who helped build its reputation as a live music venue. Its author, Monica McNamara, was a regular gig-goer there for the first ten years or so of its life, but as she observed, the declining fortunes of some of the venues over the past decade, she recognised the need to commemorate the era.

“It was like it was crumbling before my eyes,” she recalls, as venue after venue closed, changed hands and became something else. “So I just needed to remember those days and just record it. It’s kind of a part of history as well really, because these things are very soon forgotten.”

The Lobby’s demise, during what should have been a landmark year for the venue, Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2005, was especially sad.

It was proposed by the event’s organising committee that The Lobby would host a series of concerts throughout the year, highlights of which would be released on CD. However, this brought the glare of officialdom upon it and the old venue was deemed to fall short of modern fire safety requirements.

Other issues arose, which are referred to in the book, but this particular one compromised the venue’s ability to function viably.

Nonetheless, they managed to satisfy the project’s demands and a CD, Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar, was released. It would prove to be a swansong.

The moment that convinced McNamara to write the book occurred at another beloved and now defunct city venue, the Kino arthouse cinema. During the screening of the Townes Van Zandt biopic Be Here To Love Me at the 2006 Cork Film Festival. a peculiar thing happened.

“One of the minders who used to tour with Townes Van Zandt was being interviewed,” says McNamara. “He had a Lobby Bar t-shirt on and you could hear the kind of ‘whoo-hoo’ in the audience. I loved that because there was a bit of a ripple.”

Also in attendance at the screening was Conway and popular local musician and Lobby stalwart Hank Wedel.

“After that, we were standing in the foyer and we were talking about that particular concert,” continues McNamara, “and between Hank and myself and Pat Conway we couldn’t remember when Townes Van Zandt played there. That annoyed me because it was only a year-and-a-half after it closed and I am very interested in archiving stuff and writing things down.”

The country music legend performed at The Lobby Bar in April 1994, three years before he died, and his picture can be found amongst the 160-odd images contained in the book. A glance at the comprehensive gig guide from 1988 to 2005 reminds one of the other greats who graced its homely 100 person capacity space. The Band’s Rick Danko, Liam Clancy, Vic Chestnutt, Mic Christopher, Pecker Dunne and bluesman Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards have all passed on, and this year has seen Bert Jansch, who played there seven times between November 1992 and September 2000, and Doll By Doll’s Jackie Leven follow suit.

But the story of the Lobby isn’t all one of international music legends, and the book faithfully acknowledges the local musicians such as former Horslips and Moving Hearts man Declan Sinnott and local group Princes Street, who helped attract music lovers to the venue early on. It also singles out those who helped establish the philosophy of the Lobby as a ‘listening venue’, as well as the backroom staff who assisted in the promotion and day-to-day organisation. The bar staff and sound engineers are also honoured.

“I just really wanted to convey the affection that people had for the place and the approach and attitude of Pat Conway and his staff,” says McNamara. “I really wanted to convey that element of it being a place that loved and cared about music and cared about musicians. That’s why people came.”

From its folk and music beginnings, the Lobby was able to accommodate a broad range of acts from the free-flowing trad of Nomos to the powerful instrumental rock sounds of the Texans, Explosions In The Sky. Will we ever see the likes again?

* The Lobby Bar: Music Through The Windows of Union Quay, Cork by Monica McNamara is available in good bookshops.

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