bill bodkin wrote this piece on the Jersey Shore music staples for Night & Day magazine in June 2007 …
“Brian! Brian! Brian!”
The chants came from the bar at Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright, N.J., as Brian Kirk sat in the kitchen talking about his career on a drizzly Sunday afternoon.
For Brian Kirk, the chants of a local northern Monmouth County crowd is nothing new. In fact, it’s the same cheers and lively crowds that got his career going.
Born and raised in Middletown, N.J, Kirk started his musical career as a solo artist playing gigs for the Monmouth Rugby Club at their clubhouse: The Wild Rover, located on Shrewsbury Avenue in Red Bank, N.J.
“I remember the first show I played,” Kirk mused. “They passed a hat around, and I got $30. I was ecstatic.”
Since the rugby club shows were held earlier in the evening, Kirk would finish his set around 9 p.m. Due to the early nature of the show, many players would often come up to Kirk to inquire where he was playing afterwords as they were looking to continue their night of drinking with Kirk providing the soundtrack.
This demand led to what would become one of the more historic relationships between a band and a bar. Kirk headed over to Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright.
“I remember approaching the owners and asking them if they had any openings for bands, as I could probably bring about 50 rugby guys and their girlfriends [to Donovan’s] after my show at the clubhouse. Then Mr. Phillips [one of the Donovan’s owners] looked at me and said, ‘You Irish?’ And I got the job.”
It seems the luck of the Irish was on his side that night. This would be the first of many big moments in his career.
From there, Kirk continued his solo career, cutting his teeth at Red Bank’s Dublin House and small coffee houses throughout the county.
However, it would be the luck of the Irish again that would help land Kirk one of his biggest gigs at the time and eventually launch his career as one of the biggest cover acts at the Jersey Shore.
It was at a horse race called The Middletown Hunt when Kirk, after a few drinks, jumped up on the back of a friend’s pick-up truck and starting singing and playing his guitar. His friends joined in the act by banging on Tupperware, creating quiet a jam session.
One of the onlookers of the session was Pat Mastrorilli, who was in charge of booking bands at Bar Anticipation in South Belmar (now Lake Como).
Mastrorilli approached Kirk and told him he was starting a new event on Tuesday nights called “Beat the Clock” — a promotion featuring increasing beer prices every hour — and he wanted Brian and his band to play it.
Again lucky for Kirk and Bar A, Brian had just formed a three-piece outfit, which eventually became known as Brian Kirk & The Love Pumps. The band’s name came from an off-color joke from the Rob Reiner classic comedy This is Spinal Tap.
Beat the Clock and the Love Pumps were a massive success. The night became one of the bar’s biggest nights, and Kirk and the boys became big time players on the cover scene.
But after a falling out, Kirk left the band and formed the short-lived Brian Kirk & The Coup (as a jab to his old band mates). The Love Pumps remained at Bar A and eventually broke up, and members formed the band Loves Lies Bleeding, which eventually became Lifespeed, the band now occupying Kirk’s old Tuesday night at Bar A.
While no longer the poster boy for Tuesdays at Bar A, Kirk and his new band headed to what would become home for them: Tradewinds in Sea Bright.
For those unfamiliar with Tradewinds, which was owned by Jenkinson’s, iy was the undeniable hot spot in northern Monmouth County for years. The club hosted cover acts, as well as national headliners like Joan Jett, Fuel, Ween, King’s X, Sebastian Bach and more.
It was here where Brian Kirk and his new band, The Jirks, would become the legend that they are known today.
“It was something about that room and our band that just worked,” Kirk said.
“Worked” hardly describes the success the band had at Tradewinds. Sometimes even drawing more than national acts, it would not be uncommon to see close to 1,000 to 2,5000 people at a Jirks show.
Tradewinds opened a number of doors for the band. Gigs at Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant, Park City in East Rutherford, Just Jakes in Montclair, Mother’s in Wayne, The Junkyard in Rochelle Park and tons of shore gigs came the Jirks way.
This is also made way for the Jirks current gig at Donovan’s Reef on Sundays. According to legend — or Brian Kirk — the band had been playing acoustic sets in between bands on Sundays at the bar, and on one Sunday, a band from Maine, The Sense, no-showed and the Jirks got the call to fill-in. And since then, it’s been their home most Sundays in the summer.
Besides local gigs, the band also caught a bit of national exposure. The Jirks appeared on the VH1 music show Cover Wars, which featured cover bands from all over the country. They have also performed on Food Nation With Bobby Flay, as well as numerous gigs all over the country — including playing in Washington, overlooking the White House. The band even had one of their original songs become the No. 1 requested track on the morning show on New York’s top pop radio station, Z100, in 1999.
So what has made Kirk & The Jirks so successful?
“Solely heavy music doesn’t work, solely dance music doesn’t work,” Kirk says. “There has to be an element of frivolity and entertainment to your music for people to like it.”
“Song selection is never about me or the band. It’s never self-indulgent. To make people laugh and dance, that’s a big issue. It’s like inviting people to your living room.”
Kirk also mentions that he has quality musicians with him through the years and that has made what it is today. One of Kirk’s longest running band mates is drummer Ingo Marte. He’s well-traveled drummer, having playing with The Scorpions, and has been with Kirk since 1997.
The Jirks currently is made up of Marte, bassist Dan Latito, guitarist Steve Johnson plus a horn section consisting of Michael Ghegan (sax), Mike Firious (horns) and Joel Mikulyak (trombone).
Delving away from the cover world, Kirk mentioned that creating two original albums was a great achievement for the band. These albums are Hangover Mondays, consisting of songs written solely about Donovan’s Reef, and American Life In The Summertime. The band is currently working on a third album. Kirk says: “We want to capture the live sound in the studio, and that’s hard. So we’re taking our time with it.”
While the band has seen tremendous success, they have also seen some hard times — the biggest being the closing of Tradewinds. Kirk played the club’s first closing party, and he commented that it was one of the most insane shows he ever performed at. According to Kirk, people were literally trying to sneak in off the beach to see the show. The club actually re-opened for one more year, but it was sold to land developers, who have erected condos on the property.
“The closing of Tradewinds really killed the northern Monmouth County scene,” Kirk says with a sense of regret in his eye. Now, with rumors of his home bar Donovan’s Reef being up for sale, all Kirk can say is “Don’t Let Tradewinds Happen Here!”
Despite his lament for the northern Monmouth scene, Kirk is still very active and in demand all around the northeast for both bars and private parties (Goldman Sachs, weddings). Yet his musical heart will always remain in New Jersey.
“There’s something about it [the Jersey Shore]. I grew up here, I live here — it’s not like anywhere else. There’s certain Sundays when the weather’s perfect, it’s 9:30 and the sun’s setting — you can’t beat it.”
And if there’s ever a cover band that embodies the fun, laid-back camaraderie of the Jersey Shore, it is hands down Brian Kirk & The Jirks.