Harrington’s in Wakefield offers spirit aplenty on Wednesday nights

Harrington’s Food and Spirits
Where: 17 Water St., Wakefield
When: Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.
Began: 2005

Location isn’t necessarily a big consideration for session-goers – compared to concerns like “How many people will fit into the place?” or “Can you hear yourself at all?” – but Terry Weir feels it’s definitely a virtue of the session he organizes and co-leads at Harrington’s.
Wakefield, he notes, is a pretty quick jaunt via Route 95/128 or Route 93, about a half-hour or so from Boston proper (the 8:30 start time theoretically mitigates the likelihood of running into rush-hour traffic). And you pass a fair amount of open, green space, plus Crystal Lake or Lake Quannapowitt, on your way to the pub, which is right near the town center – quite a pleasant drive for a summer’s evening.
“It’s a quiet little corner in the ‘burbs,” says Weir, who lives one town over in Reading. “You might not expect to find an Irish session here. But I think people like that; it’s nice to have something a little different.”
The set-up at Harrington’s is conducive to a more intimate brand of session. Adjacent to the entrance in the pub’s northeast corner is a small section, slightly raised and partly enclosed by a plain but aesthetically agreeable banister, that accommodates perhaps six or seven musicians in an L-shaped configuration. This area is right up against one of the pub’s two picture windows, and passersby can stop for a look and a listen, perhaps enough to convince them to go inside.
Weir, who plays an assortment of instruments including fiddle, tenor banjo, bouzouki, and guitar, is a veteran of the Boston Irish music scene and thus was understandably intrigued several years ago when he heard rumors of a pub in Wakefield that was featuring acoustic music performances. One day while running errands, Weir popped into Harrington’s and chatted with co-owner Dan O’Neill about the possibility of adding an Irish session to their live music calendar.
“Dan and the other owners have been terrific to us,” says Weir of O’Neill and his wife Lisa, husband and wife Maryellen and Greg Haberland, and Brendan O’Reilley (“Harrington” is an ancestral name in the family of Lisa and Maryellen, who are sisters). “For them, it adds some authenticity to the pub, and they feel that’s important; it’s not just the bottom line that matters.”
The first session began on the Wednesday following St. Patrick’s Day of that year, 2005, and Harrington’s has since become a favored destination in particular for many Irish music aficionados living north of Boston.
“When you have something new going on, of course you’re going to wonder how it’ll play out over time,” recalls Weir. “During the first months I thought, ‘What happens in the summer? This is a bedroom community, so will everyone take off?’ But as it turned out, people in the area also would have family or friends visiting, and this is where they’d take them.”
Like most any session taking place regularly over a considerable period of time, Weir says, Harrington’s has had “its ups and downs” as its character has developed and various other factors have come into play (demographics, economics, habits, etc.).
“At first, it seemed like we had half of Boston coming here,” he quips. “On the one hand, it was good to see that people were interested, but a really big session wasn’t going to work here. We wanted to strike a balance, where you have a good quality of music without being snobbish about it. That can be a dilemma, as most any session leader can tell you: You either wind up alienating somebody, or if you just open it up, you’re going to get every egg-shaker sitting in” – a reference to inexperienced musicians whose obliviously enthusiastic participation tends to detract from a session.
“I think we’ve been able to achieve that balance. The level of playing is high enough that musicians feel challenged – but we’ve never asked anyone to leave.”
Concertina player Emily Peterson, a Harrington’s regular and occasional co-leader, agrees: “There is not a huge sense of ownership or entitlement here. The session is by no means ‘anti-beginner.’ But you definitely see that people playing at Harrington’s know their way around the music.”
Peterson’s observation is borne out by the patter among the musicians on one recent Wednesday night: informed discussions about sources and variations of particular tunes, as well as recollections – and even a few dead-on (and hilarious) impersonations – of notable Irish music personalities.
That’s all part of the reason why Bob and Jen Strom, mainstays of the session scene that in recent years has sprang up on the North Shore (in places like Salem, Beverly, and Gloucester, to name a few), like to swing by Harrington’s every so often.
“We’ve found Harrington’s very friendly and accepting,” says Bob. “A very cozy place to play, relax and talk.”
Pub sessions usually have their unique idiosyncrasies, whether it’s related to the decor, the ambience, the mix of people (musicians and non-musicians), or combinations of some or all of these. At Harrington’s, even as the session musicians are churning out jigs, reels, hornpipes, and the like, overhead they can hear the tread of feet from the Irish set dancing lessons that are regularly given Wednesdays in the pub’s function room upstairs (pre-recorded music is used for these; there’s little or no bleed-through into the session).
But Weir and the other Harrington’s devotees don’t seem to find this overlap bothersome. What’s more, when the lessons are over at around 9:30, the dancers typically stop in the pub for a pint or two before heading home, and their presence – not to mention their applause, whoops and other expressions of approval – gives the session an infusion of energy.
“It’s a good little pick-me-up,” notes Weir, exchanging pleasantries with some of the dancers as they file by on their way to find seats. “There’s a lot of spirit in here on a Wednesday night, between the music and the dance. Like I said, you might not expect to find something like this in a quiet little suburban town, and that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable.”