Jersey Shore barband legend Brian Kirk (above, at the 2001 Oysterfest in Red Bank) and his band of partystarting Jirks come to the Count Basie on December 20 for a sold-out Sea Bright Rising benefit. Below, actress-musician Jill Hennessey is also slated to appear. (Click to enlarge)
By TOM CHESEK
The way Brian Kirk tells it, the slender “city” of Sea Bright has been his home in more ways than one. “It’s where I met my wife, where I spent my youth and is the home base for my cover band, Brian Kirk & the Jirks,” he says.
While the long-running combo continues to gig regularly around the region’s wedding halls, outdoor stages and nitespots, the Red Bank resident’s legacy as an entertainer is entwined with Donovan’s Reef, the landmark beach bar where the Jirks held down a Sunday night stand that outlived nearly all the original anchors of 60 Minutes.
With Hurricane Sandy having (at least temporarily) consigned Donovan’s Reef to Davy Jones’ Locker, Kirk looks homeward on Thursday, December 20, when he and the Jirks team up with the seagrass-roots organization Sea Bright Rising for a benefit show from which all proceeds will go directly to Sea Bright “residents, businesses and the community as a whole.”
Occurring in the wake of the December 5 concert that brought San Francisco-based band Train to the edge of the battered borough’s tent city, the special Santa for Sea Bright extravaganza officially sold out as of this posting takes place at the Count Basie Theatre, the elegant setting for one of the displaced town’s council meetings in recent weeks. Kirk & the Jirks will be joined for the 7:30 p.m. show by a fellow stalwart of the Shore barscape, championship bluesmaster Matt O’Ree, as well as a promised set of “special guests” that includes TV series star (Crossing Jordan, Law & Order) turned singer and songwriter Jill Hennessy.
redbankgreen caught up with a beyond-busy Kirk for a conversation about good times, hard choices, and the big challenges facing the little town that so many of us feel a connection to.
redbankgreen: Congrats on selling out the Count Basie show and for bringing the beachy Donovan’s vibe to such a hi-class joint. Did the response to this event even take you by surprise?
We put it up on Facebook sometime on a Monday, and by Wednesday it was all sold out, which is just crazy. I was floored. And I almost didn’t do it even some of my family members wondered if anybody was gonna pay 35 bucks to see me!
What gave me the idea to go ahead was when Good Day New York wanted to have a song live on the show, and I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about Donovan’s. I thought that if we do a show, the Basie could be the place for it.
A lot of people really helped get this thing off the ground Mayor [Dina} Long of Sea Bright really encouraged us, and so has Chris Wood of Woody’s [Ocean Grille], who’s become the guy that everybody in town gets behind. He’s the modern day John Mulheren!
I really have to mention here that this thing would not have happened if it wasn’t for one man, Anthony Diaco, who’s a Rumson resident. He doesn’t belong to any of the beach clubs, he doesn’t have any stake in Sea Bright really but when he found out what we were looking to do, and how many tickets we’d need to sell to really make this work, he stepped in and said listen, I’ll write you a check and pay for the entire Basie rental, so that everything you collect goes straight to the cause.
Most anyone would agree, though, that after all those years of doing the annual Dunesday concerts in Sea Bright, you have a knack for running a benefit show.
Yeah, but this room scares me! The difference between Dunesday and something like this is tremendous. Out there at Dunesday, we’d have people dancing, talking, getting caught up in the whole scene. There wouldn’t be as many people sitting there watching us at the same time.
We absolutely appreciate your reference to the event being a night of “awesome music and offensive jokes,” since in our opinion the last thing we need after this desperately dreary interlude in Jersey Shore history is another solemn vigil.
That’s a good way to put it definitely not a solemn occasion. It just wouldn’t be in the spirit of things if we had to refrain from saying things that make ’em react like, ‘you can’t say that!’ Just the fact that this storm was named Sandy I mean, how can you not get into the irony of all that?
What I wanted to do, if I may be so bold, was to re-do the idea of a fundraiser. People have been getting badgered into giving money by all sorts of organizations, and through all kind of means, and I wanted to do something that was a true party, a real variety show.
I wanted to create a risqué sort of Ed Sullivan show, something where we’d do jokes and skits, play a song, have some dancers come on, just keep it fun. You don’t wanna over-write a show like that. And at first I was afraid that I couldn’t get too many people on the phone. Now of course everybody wants in on it.
Also, now that we’ve sold this one out we’ve been approached by the Powers That Be in Highlands to maybe do something there, so we might have some news about that in the near future. I’ve also been kicking around the idea of doing something at the Strand in Lakewood for Point Pleasant; something for Union Beach as well, although I’m not sure where at this point. We’ll even be following up with a benefit show in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.
How did you get together with the people at Sea Bright Rising? Did they approach you with the idea of a Basie show, or vice versa?
When I asked the mayor what I could do to help, she suggested that I do whatever idea I felt most strongly about, and Sea Bright Rising and I kind of got together on things as the idea developed. When I first heard the name Sea Bright Rising, I thought that it referred to what some people were talking about, of actually raising the entire town up to more than 11 feet!
What the group is actually doing, behind the good will that’s being generated by these special events in the short term, is for the greater good of the town in the long run. After the fundraisers run their course, there are still going to be a lot of hard decisions, a lot of battles I’m sure, and when the numbers really come in, a lot of questions about taxes, building costs. There’s a lot of emotion behind everything.
Were you on the scene for the Train concert? What impressions did you take away from that event?
I was there, and it was just amazing. A real feeling of neighbor helping neighbor socialism at its best! They brought in the kid who did the video [16 year old Charlotte Nagy of Rumson, whose Sandy diary on YouTube caught the attention of the California-based band]. And the audience ate it up, too.
I watched the whole thing from the audience, and it just made me think this is what music is what it can do to get people together and get things moving. My only issue is with other musicians you’ll see musicians who stay back behind the stage the whole time, chatting about their own work, and they’ll miss out on what’s really the core of the concert experience.
Hovering over all that’s going on is the spirit of Donovan’s Reef, which is a venue you’ve been so closely associated with over the years that some people think you own the place. How far back do you go with the Reef? And what do you hear about what might happen with it in the months to come?
I first walked into Donovan’s sometime in 1991, ’92, and introduced myself. The owner asked ‘You Irish?’ I said, ‘100 percent.’ He said, ‘OK, Friday night.’
From what I understand, Donovan’s is all gung ho, full steam ahead they’re talking about putting kegs on a trailer or something like that. If you ask me, it wasn’t that far removed from a trailer in the first place!
But you know what? It was never about the building anyway. It was about the emotion.
Speaking personally here and as someone whose old neighborhood up in the Bayshore was very badly hit by the storm, when I see a local landmark like Donovan’s go down, I get to thinking that the old working-stiff, honky-tonk Shore that we grew up with will never be seen again, that what rises from the sand will be less accessible to all, with more of the luxury townhomes, upscale shopping that things have been trending towards over the past couple of decades.
There’s always been a situation where you have the people that lived in these towns for many years, the people who made the town happen and who gave it the character that made it attractive to other people and then you had people who would buy in later on, build bigger houses, maybe create a more upscale sort of thing that pushes some of the first group of people out of the picture.
It’s something that happens all over the place, and it’s not unique to this area. What happens a lot of the time is that the first group moves somewhere else, and then that becomes the cool, bohemian place.
Well, some other towns in the area, Union Beach and Mantoloking in particular, suffered a similar kind of hellacious hit but not only are they very different places from each other, they’re also very much unlike Sea Bright, in that people who have never lived in Sea Bright can still feel proprietary about it, really want to rally to its defense. Just about everyone has memories of good times spent there, whether it’s out on the water, in the beach clubs or in the bars.
Something that the mayor said during one of the meetings really got to me. She said that Sea Bright will be back to normal again, that everybody will be back watching Brian Kirk on Sunday. That meant a lot to me!
If somebody is fighting for it, if it means that much to them, I’ll be there with them, even if it all comes to naught. It’s worth the shot, worth the chance to preserve something that’s genuinely special to so many people.