Nanny’s has been here forever. Okay, that’s technically not true. In the strictly literal sense of the word, nothing has been here forever, nothing will ever last forever, everything is temporary, the universe is expanding, and nothing matters. Thank you, Neil Degrasse Tyson. Let’s try this again: Nanny’s has been here for a really long time.
And even that’s not strictly true, because the current version of Nanny O’Briens only goes back about ten years, when it was bought out by Bedrock Bars. Before that, it was owned by the Lyons family, and run by D.C./Irish guitarist Brian Gaffney. The Lyons family bought it in 1993 when it was called Gallagher’s. Ed Gallagher got it from Elizabeth Jones, who ran a Western-themed restaurant at that location called The Steak Ranch. It all goes back to the 1930’s or 40’s, with Louis Kanakos’ King of the Sea restaurant. No, no one here can tell you exactly how old this bar really is.
Little bits of memorabilia are left behind of the previous institutions. King of the Sea and Gallagher’s still have their imprint on the tile at the entrance, though they’re usually covered with a doormat. The terra cotta tiles on the roof from the Ed Myles Riviera are still up. There’s even a few nails in the broom closet where musicians have hung instrument and microphone cables for the past forty years.
Years ago, Ghosts of DC covered the building at 3319 Connecticut, and gave an in-depth look at the history of the bricks. They missed out on a couple of important details though, particularly in the years it was called Gallagher’s Pub, and it was one of the busier stages in the D.C. music scene.
Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways touched on the history of D.C.’s music scene, and highlighted two elements that went on to define the pre-2000 community: hardcore and go-go. Completely ignoring the prominent guitar figures like Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan, washing over Eva Cassidy‘s voice and Charlie Byrd‘s comping, and leaving out bands like The Nighthawks who still tour, the episode left a lot to be desired.
Gallagher’s was a hodgepodge in the scene. They had a stage, they had a sound system, they had a handful of regular and recurring acts… but those were the only consistent parts of its operation. You could find jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, and the odd traditional Irish act for good measure. Sundays featured an open mic, which lasted for the better part of twenty years. Hizzboy Elroy, one of the local acts who played with some regularity at Gallagher’s, managed to not only save some of the old posters, but actually managed to get a few online. And, yes, this is the same bar where Mary Chapin Carpenter started her career.
More importantly, to me anyway, is who she played with– my dad. They were a duo for years called Junque Street, and played somewhat frequently at Gallagher’s. I still have the recording of one of their 1980-something sets. My mother was also a part of the scene at Gallagher’s, tending bar a few nights a week, and putting up with my father’s shenanigans.
There’s still a few active musicians around town who came from Gallagher’s community. Upright bassist John Previti, songwriter and part-time piano tuner Bill Baker, Snakehead Run‘s Denny Buck, and award-winning fiddler Brendan Mulvihill all played regular gigs at Gallagher’s Pub. This was in the days of four-hour gigs, when customers could still smoke inside, half the sound equipment didn’t work, and feet stuck to the floor from spilled beer. But the musicians put up with it because the paycheck was decent, and the regulars put up with it because they could see great music for no cover. Locals kept turning up, so the musicians kept playing.
Years later, Bedrock has cleaned the place up a little. The flatscreen TVs are new, and so are the beer lines. General Manager Mike Johnstone has one of the more curious tastes in craft beer, and handpicks the few brews that show up on Nanny’s taps. It’s still a small bar, and space is limited. This is not a behemoth bar, like some of the other Bedrock establishments. At Nanny’s, you have to put your trust in the community. The food is also a good reason to drop in. There’s a couple “traditional” pub favorites, like the fish & chips, or the Guinness beef stew. Personally, I’m a big fan of the wings.
Nanny’s still features a calendar that’s as diverse as the old days. Edy Blu plays and sings about once a month. Derek Evry, who opened for my band at 9:30 Club last year, has recently taken to playing with Party Like It’s front woman Cathy DiToro. Even Brian Gaffney comes back around once a month to play a set. Also, I’ve played there at least twice a month since 2009. My dad and Bill Baker came out to my first gig at Nanny’s, and promptly left after the first set. When I asked why they had to go so early, they both told me, “This is weird. It’s like it’s happening all over again.”
What’s remarkable about the history of Nanny’s is how completely unremarkable the bar has been over its 40 years as a live music venue. We can listen to Dave Grohl prattle on about the rise and fall of hardcore, or listen to Henry Rollins (né Garfield) talk about how he found his calling when Bad Brains got him to sing onstage for a number. But the stage at Nanny’s is a more tangible piece of the District’s music history. The musicians who played here may have won four Grammies, or quit performing to go teach. However, they all, for a time, played regular gigs at a tiny pub in a sleepy neighborhood, for a locals-only crowd. These are the kinds of gigs that make better performers. This is the kind of bar that needs to be around for a music scene to grow.