Inside a dimly lit bar in Costa Mesa, the late-night crowd gathered on the dance floor is small but mighty—and a little drunk. But to the sunglasses-sporting man presently standing on top of a cocktail table, his long, wavy hair flowing over the top of his bandana, it might as well be a packed arena in Poughkeepsie.
We are at the Harp Inn, an Irish pub that marked its 30th anniversary in March. The “(mis)leader” of the Barstow Boyz, Rim Morrison, is table-surfing while dressed in layers of ’80s-fashion faux pas. Backed by the “ultimate ’70s and ’80s cover band”—at least according to their website—the ringleader conducts the final chorus of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” The rest of the night, he and band mates Mixl, Nils and Roger play everything from Judas Priest to Billy Idol to Pink Floyd to Journey and Tom Petty. Their outfits may verge on ridiculous, but they deliver solid tunes.
But it wasn’t always this way at the Harp. Before John Joe Lyons took over the pub, most of the bands were not as in your face. “There were a lot of Irish bands at that time, which worked pretty well, you know . . . in the ’80s,” he says. “Everything Irish seemed to be great for a while, musically. U2 were doing great; you had the Pogues, the Waterboys.”
When the then-21-year-old came to the U.S. after Ireland’s economy ran flat in the ’80s, Lyons found a home away from home in the Harp. Shortly after taking over in 2002 for fellow Irishman Gerry Mackey, he removed the elevated dining area to make more room for a stage. (Not long ago, he upgraded the sound system with QSC Speakers and an Allen & Heath mixer board.) The Harp has become a staple for live music, with a recent shift toward booking what one could call “elevated or theatrical” bands, wherein the group take the business of being in a cover band more seriously than they take themselves, going balls to the wall on costuming and posturing.
In addition to such comedic cover bands (including the Clinton Affair, who are dedicated to the hits and misses of the ’90s), Lyons has hand-selected a few tribute groups, each bringing a different approach to the music of artists such as the Grateful Dead (Cubensis), Smashing Pumpkins (The Great Pumpkin) and Nirvana (Nirvanish).
Cover and tribute bands have been around since nearly the beginning of rock as dreamers cut their teeth on the hits of emergent stars. The great, late Otis Redding found his early footing covering Little Richard, and one would be hard-pressed to imagine the Rolling Stones becoming the Rolling Stones without their devotion to blues artists such as Chuck Berry.
So if covering other artists is nothing new, why the seeming resurgence? In a 2017 LA Weekly article, Andy Hermann outlined the rise of the tribute band from the sidelines to a viable working business model. In that piece, he talked about the influence of Steel Panther, the wildly successful glam-metal outfit who now only play originals within their genre, coming full-circle.
Among those inspired by Steel Panther are Flashback Heart Attack, a synth-heavy cover band who’ve performed nearly every other Friday at the Harp Inn for the past eight years. In fact, according to lead singer and guitarist “Don Bronze,” Flashback Heart Attack used to open for Steel Panther at the Key Club in LA. And one day, “I was like, ‘Hey, I have this great idea: With red-leather suits, we’re going to do this whole schtick of the Romantics and some of those ’80s bands and play all the ’80s new-wave stuff,’” the blond-wig-bedecked Bronze recalls.
“He used to come here and bug me every night to play,” Lyons interjects.
The Harp has become the home base for the OC locals, who play up to 100 shows per year, from corporate gigs to weddings to charity events, and have acted as a backing band for Alice Cooper, Billie Joe Armstrong and Eddie Vedder. They’ve been profiled in numerous publications and accepted accolades including being named Best Live Band or Best Rock Band nine times in this very publication’s Best Of issues. “[Steel Panther] showed me the format, kind of a blueprint of what you need to do . . . to be successful,” says Bronze, who runs the operation full-time while the other two members hold down more traditional jobs.
Lyons chooses bands based on their ability to connect with and entertain customers while he provides comfort and reliability via the smooth Guinness he serves. He sees the Harp as a gathering place for his community and has held numerous charity fundraisers, a quality highlighted by 74th District Assemblyman Matthew Harper in June when the Harp was named Small Business of the Year in a Sacramento ceremony.
What happens when it’s time for Lyons to exit stage left? “Oh, if I ever leave it, I would want to pass it to somebody who would do exactly what I’m doing,” he says in a relaxed brogue. “It’s been a landmark, an institution in this town, and I would want it to continue—I would want a little bit of a legacy.”
The Harp Inn, 130 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-8855; www.harpinn.com.