The worst thing you can say about the Black Rose, a new Irish pub in downtown Grand Rapids, is that it is very much of a type: the requisite “homey Irish pub” that you’ll find in many a new development or urban revitalization zone. The dim earthtones on the walls and the shelves stacked with fake antiques are designed to make the place feel like an old neighborhood joint, even though it’s only a year old, if that. But just as you start to get yourself worked up into a bout of cynicism—ambience painted on the walls and all that—you notice that the bartender makes a very good Black & Tan. And that—joy of joys!—they have Strongbow cider on tap. I have a hard enough time finding Strongbow in D.C., where we have places like the Brickskeller.
But this isn’t about the bar, it’s about the band. I’ve mentioned Craic Wisely before—one of their members, Jonathan, is a longtime friend. They play Irish folk music of the slam-your-flagon-on-the-table variety. It’s been plenty of fun to listen to their CD, but as you might expect with a band of this sort, the real pudding-proof comes from seeing them live, which I finally got a chance to do at the Black Rose this past Friday. Going in, I had a little bit of that trepidation that you always get when approaching a friend’s creative endeavor—what if it doesn’t measure up, and you have to pretend to be enjoying yourself?
This, um, wasn’t a problem. They oh so totally rocked. By the second song, there amid the faux-traditional decor, they had created something entirely genuine: a packed bar hanging on their every note. A handful of people were clearly there to see the band, but most were ordinary patrons who, instead of gabbing in the corners about whatever it was they were planning to gab about, had their attention fixed on the stage. Craic Wisely’s recipe is simple: play straight-up, high-energy traditional Irish music with a couple guitars, bass, drum, mandolin and accordion, and do it as if your life depended on every song. They succeeded in creating that feeling of ale-soaked conviviality that every pub in the world tries to capture and that is absolutely impossible to fake.
During one song, a drunk guy in a pink suit was doing an Irish jig in the middle of the floor. He was surrounded by a bunch of other guys in suits colored red, blue, green, and black. Mr. Black was a stocky young man of clear Irish descent, also drunk but holding his liquor with dignified calm as he nodded approvingly at his friend’s steps and missteps.
“Are you guys with a bachelor party or something?” asked Todd, CW’s frontman, after they finished the song and Mr. Pink swayed triumphantly.
“A funeral,” replied Mr. Black.
“Seriously?” said Todd.
“What do you expect? The guy was a fuckin’ Mick,” said Mr. Black proudly.
If Craic Wisely’s members strike you as a little clean-cut for an Irish bar band, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. I know for a fact that Jonathan knows which end of a bottle of whiskey is up, but when the night’s gig is done, he doesn’t stumble off to piss in the Grand River and mumble about lost love—he goes home to a lovely wife and two darling children. The only one of them who looks at all likely to instigate a rousing bar brawl (something that would permanently cement their street cred) is Jason Herrick, who you can imagine flipping out if anyone should get between him and his bodhran. Still, their lack of obvious alcoholism aside, Craic Wisely can belt out songs about moonshine and sinking ships with the best of them. Shane MacGowan would be proud.
UPDATE: For some strange reason, the comments to this entry got deleted. I didn’t do it—at least not on purpose.