In the first section of 1888’s “Twilight of the Idols,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche offers the following aphorism: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
This statement stands as one reason why the man’s name is emblazoned across the window of Allen Street’s enduring and eclectic music venue, Nietzsche’s. For more than 30 years, the bar has hosted psychedelic shows, touring acts and tribute nights. And, if you’ve wielded a Fender around Buffalo’s music scene, you’ve probably strummed chords atop its splintered stage.
But what if I told you this countercultural enclave also doubles as Buffalo’s most authentic Irish pub on Saturdays? You would think, like the previous philosopher’s view of a tuneless life, this was a mistake, too, right? Wrong. Take a five o’clock stroll through Allentown and follow the echo of fiddle strings to Nietzsche’s, whose weekly Celtic sessions have been one of downtown’s best-kept secrets for nearly 10 years.
Now, did a venue that models oversized papier-mâché masks, gothic interiors and rock-focused ceiling graffiti actively recruit Irish instrumentalists to take over the barroom on Saturdays? No.
In a story emblematic of Nietzsche’s and bartender Bill Fenzel’s embracing nature, they agreed to open early and welcome the musicians after some of the city’s more ethnically aligned locales – citing concern over lost table space to a circle of acoustic guitars, banjos and flutes –turned them down.
Thankfully for the bar ownership and its bartending team of Fenzel and Megan Piret, their invitation has yielded a weekly scene of sing-alongs, cycling rhythms and stout-fueled revelry.
On the Saturday before Christmas, I walked into Nietzsche’s from the dark December rain to find a dozen musicians perched in rickety chairs to the right of the entrance. Arranged around a secondhand coffee table, they fiddled with guitars and lutes as the bar’s comforting shadows joined barstools and tables of patrons. Though multiple drafts, bottles and liquor options are available, imperial (20 oz.) glasses of Guinness rested near most while conversation was measured, subservient to the ambiance of accordion notes.
If you’ve ever been to Ireland and felt the settling solace available with an afternoon pint, then you’ve basked in the organic vibe available within a Saturday session in Nietzsche’s. If you’re looking to bask in an afternoon of Irish stereotypes or costumes, complete with repetitious inhalation of Bushmills or frat house bros in floppy green hats, please don’t venture to Allen Street. You’ll feel horribly out of place.
Thankfully, I felt right at home.
Clutching a Guinness – poured and settled with a finishing shamrock by Fenzel – I stood as the day’s band circled through traditional instrumentals. When a set of bagpipes entered the fray, 12 musicians became a baker’s dozen, each flawlessly twisting in and out of familial classics like “I’ll Tell Me Ma” before the day’s barroom sing-along on “Fiddler’s Green.” The song’s verses are sung a cappella by neighborhood resident Jim Mrozek, bartender Piret and other regulars, but the chorus is sung by the day’s patrons, all of varying ages, styles and facial hair. Regardless of differences, all joined on the lyrics.
“Oh, dress me up in me oilskins and jumper. No more on the docks I’ll be seen. Just tell me old shipmates I’m taking a trip mates. I’ll see you someday in Fiddler’s Green.”
It’s an Irish awakening for some; a day to revel in ancestry for others. Like the bar’s German namesake once philosophized, life would be a mistake without musical accompaniment – Celtic or otherwise.
Generations later, Nietzsche’s words are validated on cathartic Saturdays inside the Buffalo bar bearing the philosopher’s name.
Where: 248 Allen St. (886-8539; also found on Facebook and www.nietzsches.com).
When to go: Celtic Sessions is from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturdays , but it usually continues after 8 p.m. or whenever the musicians pack up. It’s free, but toss in a few bucks when the musicians pass the hat.
Dress: Come as you are.
On Tap: 20 oz. Guinness, poured in handcrafted Irish glassware and only available during the sessions. For the heathens, there’s Sierra Nevada, Blue Moon, Magic Hat #9, Harpoon IPA, Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, Night Owl Cream Porter, Caged Alpha Monkey, Angry Orchard and hipster-ready Pabst. Price range: Special of the day is Guinness at $4, other beers (bottle or draft) are $3 to $4.75. Mixed drinks and shots are $3.75 and $4.75.
How to pay: Cash.
Parking: Small lot next to the bar, and spots on Allen Street.