Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle was a relic of an earlier Bethesda.
With its dark wood bar, wall of posters, and a stage that once hosted the likes of Joan Jett and Gregg Allman, the joint has a history, said Thomas Keith, a regular performer.
Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, an Irish pub, is shutting down soon after 35 years, leaving many musical memories behind.
Owners Steve and Jenny Nugent took over the bar in 2002. Two years later, they moved Harp & Fiddle to its current location on Cordell Avenue. The pub stayed there for 16 years, giving local acts their start, with live music five nights a week.
The couple plan to close the business at the end of the month.
Keith, who played at Harp & Fiddle every Tuesday for the past six years, said the owners were instrumental in his development as a musician. Keith said he was a Harp patron since he was 10 years old. Steve later booked Keith before hearing him play a note.
“All these Tuesdays are your Tuesdays — I don’t care if you can’t play,” Keith recalls Steve saying. The set took off, and Keith estimates he’s played 300 to 400 shows at the venue.
Steve’s willingness to take a chance on a kid has let Keith do the same in his Tuesday shows at the Harp.
“We called it an invite-only open mic,” Keith said. But if a kid asked to play, they’d give him the mic for three songs — albeit after some minor teasing.
Andrew Scott Zimmer, who has played at the Harp for more than a year, reflected on the spontaneity of Tuesday nights at the Harp, when musicians and music lovers would pack into the place and play.
Someone would start up a song — by Elton John, the Rolling Stones or Radiohead — and the musicians would find their place in the beat, trading verses and solos.
“It just felt so free,” Zimmer said. “Steve giving us access to the bar every Tuesday to develop that kind of back and forth was very special.”
The feeling of playing there, improving his craft, was indescribable, Zimmer said, having trouble finding the right words. “It’s like describing a song you love — you can’t know it until you listen.”
Though Flanagan’s Irish Pub preceded Steve and Jenny, they helped diversify the live music that became its signature.
The pub was established in 1985 as a spot with live Irish music. Steve started off by washing dishes there in 1990. He worked his way up to waiter, bartender and eventually, “I stole a lot of money and bought it,” he joked.
Steve changed the music from all-Irish to open-to-all. Blues bands, rock music and go-go have all been played on Harp’s stage.
As a teenager in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Steve played in a punk rock band. It led to his love of discovering new talent, Jenny said.
“He just loves watching them grow as musicians,” Jenny said. “He loves watching them get their start and then move on.”
Caolaidhe Davis of The 19th Street Band, who also hails from Northern Ireland, attributed the restaurant’s prior success to Steve’s sense of humor and respect for the community.
Like Keith, Caolaidhe and Meghan Davis, husband and wife members of The 19th Street Band, got their start at Harp & Fiddle, back when other clubs wouldn’t give them a chance.
“Steve’s the reason why people actually go there, to be honest. He has this ability to connect and bring you in and make you want to come back,” Caolaidhe said. “He’s a bit of a legend, if I may say that.”
Keith said this caring spirit was a signature. He spoke of Steve’s tough demeanor hiding a kind and caring man.
“He sort of likes being a tough guy, telling stories about [Northern] Ireland, but they are the sweetest people in the world,” Keith said. “He used to give me money out of his own pocket when I was broke living on Battery Lane.”
The pandemic stretched the pub’s purse strings, as it could no longer serve alcohol after 10 p.m. or host the live music that was its signature.
As they helped local musicians, Steve and Jenny also served the community. They delivered the excess food that wasn’t eaten on St. Patrick’s Day to churches, homeless shelters and hospitals. In a recent interview with WJLA, Steve estimated the pair served more than 2,000 meals.
When the pandemic hit, the couple tried to find an outdoor venue to continue with live music. But Phase 2 of reopening in Montgomery County prohibits indoor and outdoor live music.
“I’m hoping they will lift that soon because we just know so many musicians that … need the income,” Jenny said.
According to musicians who played the Harp, the owners are always looking out for them.
“There’s no other place that cares more about the music and the musicians than the Harp & Fiddle,” said Johnny Wilson, who played the venue once every three months.
Even when he wasn’t performing, Wilson spent nights at the pub. He would head there for open mic nights and meet up with other music lovers.
“I always had a place to go,” he said. “You just go to the Harp & Fiddle.”
Keith spoke of the bar’s closing as part of a broader shift in Bethesda to more corporate chains, with less room for older places with $5 cover charges, like Harp & Fiddle.
“I think the town is changing really rapidly and places like Harp — it had soul, it had identity — are becoming rarer and rarer,” Keith said. “It’s a sad thing for Bethesda because you can’t really get that back once you’ve lost it.”
The loss of Harp’s was sinking in on Thursday.
“When the pandemic’s over and we finally do get to play again, it just seems surreal that the Harp won’t be there to play,” Meghan Davis said.