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The Selfishly Awesome Life Of Fergie Carey: Celebrating 20 Years of Fergie’s Pub.

May 23, 2014

FergiesSmall03Text and images by Michael Bucher.

On one of those surprisingly pleasant January afternoons in Philly, there are a handful of tweens playing traditional Irish music in the back corner of Fergie’s Pub. Their parents are seated at a table not far away, talking amongst themselves, listening to their children practice and picking at orders of food from the kitchen.

Normally, the kids would be upstairs practicing before their scheduled 4 p.m. traditional Irish music session downstairs but the owner, a devoted supporter of the arts, promised the space to a theater company.

No one downstairs seems to mind the early Celtic melodies.

The word “traditional” refers both to the historical customs of Ireland’s pub music as well as the 11 consecutive years Fergie’s has hosted the Saturday event. At its peak that afternoon, 13 musicians join in the rolling set, ranging in age from 11 to 69.

Not one specific sound, musical genre, age group or customer defines Fergie’s Pub. Instead, it’s simply the selfish pursuit of Fergie Carey to build long-standing traditions – and in the process, foster a devoted community of people who frequently occupy every square inch of the bar.

It was a night in November 1994 when the party started. Like today, the interior of the bar was dimly lit with dark trim and a long wooden bar from the previous establishment (Hoffman House) rooted at the front of the entrance. A line wrapped around the block at 12th and Sansom to get in. The single keg of Guinness was gone in an hour, remembers Carey, a native of Ireland.

“He wanted to make it a place he wanted to be in,” says Jim McNamara, a manager at Fergie’s who has worked at the bar since opening night. “It was successful from the very onset.”

In the unfinished room upstairs, guests sat on the floor because there were no chairs yet. They eventually had to stop letting people in because it was too crowded.

Before opening Fergie’s, Carey was a bartender at another Philly Irish bar, McGlinchey’s. It was there he began building a loyal clientele, becoming friendly with the local community and University of the Arts students.

“Oddly enough, at this point, he employs a lot of fine artists or musicians,” says McNamara. “It’s sort of a 20-years-later mirroring of the staff that he worked with at McGlinchey’s.”

The staff at Fergie’s is the framework from which everything else is built upon. Members are personally picked by Carey and much of the staff feels a loyalty to “the man who will never forget your name.”

“I don’t consider myself a complacent person, but to be there for 19 years, I obviously enjoy my job and the relationship with the bosses,” McNamara says.

Bartending there is a desired position. With no previous experience, Jess Conda credits her employment there partly to a little bit of luck and timing.

“It’s not really the kind of place you can roll up with your bartending school resume and get a job,” says Conda. “He’s a lot more interested in the synergy of people.”

Her first encounter with Carey was in 2003 as an intern at Brat Productions, a Philadelphia theater company where he has served as president of the board of directors for 15 years. About three years ago, Conda was let go from a theater teaching job and didn’t know what to do. The two stayed in contact through Brat and when she saw him, she told him what happened.

“Oh, come to the pub. You start tomorrow,” she remembers him telling her. “He helped me out in that time of crossroads.”

The help didn’t end there. Conda, now the artistic director at the theater company, credits Carey as a generous supporter of the arts through acts like donating kegs for fundraisers or space for a last minute practice for an upcoming show.

She says, “I know Fergie is the dude I can call and be like, ‘Hey I have three interns learning dance moves for this Van Halen song, can we use the pub for an hour?’”

Though once heavily involved  in theater, Carey, 50, now has more of an inclination toward music.

“I’ve killed enough brain cells for high-falutin’ cerebral theater,” he says in a gargle-y Irish accent and with a trickster’s grin. “I just go, ‘Let’s get blasted and watch rock ‘n’ roll.’”

“He’s always out at a play or a concert trying to experience something new or exciting and tries to bring that back into the building with him,” observes McNamara.

If the staff is the framework of Fergie’s, music is the walls and floors and ceiling of the pub. It’s a permanent fixture that makes the space feel like home. There’s music in the pub five nights a week – Carey hopes to fill Tuesday and Thursday soon – and on weekends there are usually multiple performances.

To manage the booking, Carey hired Raphael Cutrufello of Hezekiah Jones.

“Everything he books feels like more than just entertainment,” says Conda. “It feels like he’s laying foundations for relationships that makes for better art and better community.”

Cutrufello, who played shows at Fergie’s in the past, understands the draw the pub has on musicians.

“Fergie’s is a great place for people to get their feet wet playing in the city or starting out projects,” he says.

There are a number of things that contribute to the pub’s greatness. For one, Carey never charges a cover to get in or for any of the shows. Also, Fergie’s has developed a reputation for bringing together talented musicians from across the city, forming a vibrant community within the pub. And their open mic night is regarded as the best in the city. It is a place where musicians go to practice new material or get inspired by like minded artists.

Several bands have had residencies at the pub, playing a regular night every week for month or more. John Train band has been playing Fridays for three month intervals for seven years. The jazz band Victor North Trio played on opening night and continues to play at Fergie’s.

Often, musicians approach the pub to book shows. After jazz trumpet player Matt Cappy finished a worldwide tour this winter as part of Jay Z’s backup band, he wanted to celebrate his birthday by playing more music with fellow Jay Z backup musicians somewhere guaranteed to be fun. The Philly native  booked Fergie’s.

“Dude just traveled all over the world and was like, ‘I wanna have my birthday party at Fergie’s,’” says Conda, who worked the night of the party and remembers the crazy crowd .

All the accomplishments of the pub can be traced back to Carey, who also co-owns Monk’s Cafe, Nodding Head Brewery, Belgian Cafe and Grace Tavern. He has been unwavering in his vision and execution of what he wanted in this bar.

“What he wants to do with the place ends up being really appealing to other people too,” says Cutrufello, “because he’s unabashedly making it how he wants.”

Consistently, the anniversary party in November has been an event worth marking on your calendar. With this year being the 20th anniversary, it’s almost guaranteed to be a spectacle. McNamara is glad it’s in November or else it might involve body paint and fire breathers.

It’s still eight months away but ideas are already swirling inside Carey’s head.

“I had a dream of having some form of parade with the West Philly Orchestra,” Carey recalls. “Because they’re just such a parade. Anyway, it’s a while away.”

However it turns out, it’s sure to be another selfish pleasure, just the way Fergie’s started. And everyone will love it.

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