Live Irish music, distanced dining take baby steps back to the old days at ICC

Fiddler Nathan Gourley and uilleann piper Joey Abarta were among the performers as the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton featured live entertainment for the first time in months.


Call it the first few steps on the long road back. On July 10 and 11, the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton featured live music in its outdoor dining area, the first time the ICC had had flesh-and-blood musicians – as opposed to those livestreamed or pre-recorded— providing entertainment since the coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March. 

The trio of John O’Connor, Wynter Pingel, and Johnny Coe started things off on July 10, playing for three hours under a marquee tent on the patio outside the main building of the ICC campus. The following evening, fiddler Nathan Gourley and uilleann piper Joey Abarta performed traditional tunes for an hour, followed by a set of songs by “Cliff.” 

Recent weeks have seen Massachusetts continue to ease its way back from coronavirus restrictions, with some pubs and restaurants reopening during the past few weeks under specific guidelines and restrictions. It’s been a welcome, however slight, sign of progress for Boston’s Irish/Celtic music community – especially those whose income derives partly or fully from performing – which has largely been house-bound since just before St. Patrick’s Day. While playing gigs via livestreams and other technology-aided means has helped fill at least some of the shortfall, musicians have definitively stated their preference for live events.

Not everything is the way it was, of course. At the ICC, the musicians performed on stage behind a plexiglass screen. Masks and social distancing were the rule for everyone, and seating in the dining area was configured so as to meet safety guidelines, such as no more than six people at one table. 

But both evenings were well-attended, according to the ICC, and the presence of live music was a tonic for everyone, musicians included.

“Playing with the plexiglass kind of felt like we were on a big-screen TV, but we had a fun time,” said Pingel, whose only other live gig in the past few months was playing for a small gathering at an assisted-care community in June. “It felt great – just wonderful – to be back playing for people.“

The weekend after it reopened, the ICC hosted a session group on Friday night and brought back Gourley and Abarta as well as the O’Connor-Pingel-Coe trio on Saturday, while July’s final weekend saw local guitarist/singer Colm O’Brien make an enthusiastic return to two of his favorite Boston-area venues, The Banner Pub in Rockland and The Cottage Bar in Weymouth, both of which held events on a patio.

O’Brien, who had performed at a bar in New Hampshire earlier in the month, found it “hugely rewarding” to play in live settings again. 

“The gigs at The Banner and The Cottage were extremely well received and the vibe was terrific. My overall impression after the handful of gigs I’ve been able to procure is that people miss live music – they need live music – and want it as part of their night out.”

But O’Brien knows that there are only a couple of months left before outdoor gigs come to an end with the arrival of cooler weather. He hopes that by then pubs and restaurants will be able to accommodate music events inside, but isn’t banking on it.

“As a live musician, I’ve learned that you need to be adaptable and that is something all of us will need to be in the weeks and months ahead. I fully understand the need for restrictions as we have to absolutely avoid being forced to shut down again – as has happened in many other places – so I reckon we’ve a long way yet to go before we get back to anything even approaching normality. 

“I’d been livestreaming over Facebook, and while this is a great means to keep in touch with your audience, nothing can substitute for a proper live show. It’s my opinion that live music is as important to people as it’s ever been and is probably even more important now as people try to make sense of their new surroundings.”

In another positive development, Irish dance performer, teacher and choreographer Kieran Jordan announced on social media that she was reopening her Hyde Park studio for private lessons (one to two students at a time), and would also make it available to rent for solo dance work, rehearsals for up to three people, filming video content, and other appropriate uses conforming to state guidelines and restrictions.

“CLEAN and PRIVATE space,” she wrote, “and GOOD VIBES.”

Good vibes were definitely in evidence at the ICC reopening, reported Maudy Dooher, the center’s deputy executive director. 

“It was a lovely night. People were thrilled that dining was available again, and having live music on top of it made it all the better,” said Dooher. She added that diners, while enjoying themselves, seemed “cautious and reserved” and didn’t linger as long as in the pre-pandemic times. Above all, “they were patient and very good rule-followers.”

For Abarta, his performance with Gourley at the ICC was more than a gig. It was an affirmation of the bond he feels with the center: “We’ve always been helping each other. I’m a big supporter of the ICC and what they do.”

Moreover, the event was an opportunity to reconnect with some friends from the Irish dance community who had come out to hear him and Gourley. So Abarta and his wife, Jackie O’Riley, brought along their infant daughter, Edith, for the occasion.

“What I’ve missed most of all,” said Abarta, “is playing for people who enjoy the music.”