Just in time for St. Paddy’s Day, Fort Wayne’s pub music scene is growing

It’s around 7 p.m. in Downtown Fort Wayne, and a rag-tag group of about 10 guys and one gal gather in the back room of J.K. O’Donnell’s Irish Ale House

Since the lumbar-flanked Irish pub opened in the mid-2000s, it has been a mainstay in the Downtown social scene with authentic Irish furniture, food, and brews that will transport you overseas. 

Members of the Ragtag Bunch sing during a performance at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

On the last Thursday night of every month, just inside its backroom known as Beleek Hall, this motley crew of 20- and 30-something friends gathers ‘round an old wood piano near the fireplace. Some carry instruments – a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, a bodhran. And with the strum of a guitar, someone belts out: “One, Two, Three!”

Then the others join in, singing, clapping, stomping, and cheering their way through the old Irish sea shanty “Rosibella.”

“Come let's join Rosibella,
Come let's join Rosibella,
Come let's join, come let's join,
The saucy Rosibella!”

From left: Oscar Matter, Jonathan Casey, Stephen Stachofsky, and Braxton Matthews of the Ragtag Bunch sing during a performance at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

In recent years, the Irish atmosphere at J.K. O’Donnell’s has reached new heights with the addition of live pub music events each month, from instrumental jam sessions to bouts of folk songs and sea shanties, like these, sung by a group known as the Ragtag Bunch.

Stephen Stachofsky, a burly, bearded man in his late-20s, who wrangles the Ragtag Bunch into their monthly live performances, believes it's a growing trend as Fort Wayne emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“J.K. O’Donnell’s is turning into such an interesting little nexus of music,” he says. “It all kind of has that singer-songwriter, folk flare going on, which I think really fits with this pub.”

J.K. O'Donnell's is located at 121 W. Wayne St. in the heart of Downtown Fort Wayne.

In addition to J.K.’s “Ragtag” nights on the last Thursdays of every month, the pub also hosts “Trad Nights” every third Wednesday (short for “traditional music”). As a longtime player in the local Irish music scene, Sean Hoffman started these events about 10 years ago, based on similar so-called “sessions” he had experienced in Ireland and across the U.S., particularly during his studies in New York.

“I studied the Irish fiddle with an All-Ireland fiddle champion, Brian Conway, in New York when I was in school out there, and I used to go to sessions and jam and listen to all the players, who were some of the best in the world,” he says.

Sean Hoffman organizes monthly Trad Night Irish music sessions at J.K. O'Donnell's.

When he returned to the Midwest, he found an Irish sessions group to play with in the South Bend area about two hours north of Fort Wayne, but nothing locally. So he reached out to the former Owners and Founders of J.K.’s, Melissa and Scott Glaze, to start something here.

In addition to hosting Trad Nights monthly for the past 10 years–where anywhere from two to 12 local musicians play impromptu Irish instrumental music together at the pub–Hoffman has become the de-facto booking agent at J.K.’s year-round. Part of this work includes planning their annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which transform Wayne Street into a canopy of beer tents with live music.

This year, the event is making its return after a two-year pandemic hiatus, and two local bands Hoffman plays with, Soltre and the Debutants, will perform. The Ragtag Bunch is joining the lineup, too, after having made their original debut on a livestream version of the St. Paddy’s Day concert last year. 

Members of the Ragtag Bunch sing during a performance at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

Hoffman believes that, in some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is inspiring greater interest in live music—and particularly, celebratory and informal expressions, like pub music. While he enjoys playing with bands that are structured and practiced, he sees the advantage pub music can have in creating an environment for more casual, scrappy, and inviting encounters with musicians and the artform.

“People are appreciating live music more because it has been taken away for a while, and they are interested in stuff they can make themselves,” Hoffman says. “That’s the draw of sessions and Irish pub music. It’s sort of this sense of, ‘We don't need anything else, but to get together and to have a good time and to play together.”

Members of the Ragtag Bunch sing during a performance at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

For many local musicians, like Hoffman, pub music provides a creative outlet to express themselves and try new things. As the leader of the Ragtag Bunch, Stachofsky has studied classical voice performance and sung with operas and other groups across the Midwest. He and many members of his crew are trained musicians, including his father, Mark Stachofsky, who teaches Voice and Lyric Diction​​ at Purdue Fort Wayne. 

“A lot of us have done choirs and shows and performances with a lot of rigid structure, and far be it for me to ever knock that culture,” Stachofsky says. “But with this group, we’re trying to get away from some of that structure and really just free ourselves up to make music because we want to.”

Stephen Stachofsky, center, of the Ragtag Bunch sings during a performance at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

This creative freedom on top of musical training has inspired the Ragtag Bunch to reach out to some of the nation’s premier Irish pub music creators and to get the rights to produce original arrangements of their songs locally. They released their first album this year on Spotify, which was recorded during their sold-out live performance at the Tiger Room at Welch’s. They have plans in the works for a second album and more collaborations later this year, too. 

Even so, Stachofsky says they don’t sing for the money and the fame. They sing for the beer—which is playfully noted on their tip jar—and for the benefits live music can bring to Fort Wayne in wounds that need to be healed, friendships that should be cherished, and new bonds that can be formed.

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, pub music can be the ice-breaker that brings people together. Throughout the Ragtag Bunch’s nearly three-hour set at J.K.’s each month, they migrate through the pub, inviting diners to sing along, and even join them in a drinking game over the lengthy 10-minute tune of “The Barley Moe.”

“The point of the game is to finish the drink in your hand on the last verse,” Stachofsky says.

The crowd cheers during a performance of The Ragtag Bunch at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

Along with boosting tabs at local bars, community interaction is the ultimate goal, and at many American pubs and gathering places, it’s long overdue.
 
“We hope our music gets people to interact, not only with us, as musicians, but with everyone around them, too,” Stachofsky says. “That’s the element of the Irish pub scene that’s really missing from most American bars. Usually, people are just sitting there with their own group, or on a date, and they’re not even considering the person across the bar. We want more of that random, community interaction happening here in Fort Wayne.”

Crowd members grab video of a song during a performance of The Ragtag Bunch at J.K. O’ Donnell’s on February 24, 2022.

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day on Wayne Street

The J.K. O’Donnell’s beer tent will open to guests ages 21 and over at 4 p.m. on March 17. It will feature bands from 5-11 p.m., including:
  • The Shrugging Sisters
  • The Ragtag Bunch
  • Soltre
  • The Debutants
If you miss this event, you can still catch Trad Nights and the Ragtag Bunch every month again at J.K.’s starting in April.
 

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.