With cartoon-like intensity, the new mural on the wall next to the Starry Plough's entrance leaps out in bright hues of red, blue, and yellow. Everything is alive and animated in artist Peter Lee's depiction of the South Berkeley pub and its denizens. But once inside the front door, it's not bright but dark, and inviting in that old-neighborhood-bar way. This week the popular venue celebrates its thirtieth birthday with three free nights of all-ages concerts featuring some of its best-known bands and best up-and-comers.
Thursday's kickoff birthday concert offers the Plough's newest acts, headlined by country-rock favorites the Cowlicks. On Friday, singers Chuck Prophet and Stephanie Finch lead a five-act bill, and on Saturday it's the Naked Barbies, plus George Pedersen and His Pretty Good Band (as the Natives, they were the house band in the '70s and '80s). For information, call 510-841-2082.
The Starry Plough has been around for three decades because the bar-restaurant-concert space continues to provide what the locals want, whether it's just a place to nurse one of the myriad beers on tap and chat with fellow drinkers, or to check out some of the local and national musical acts that pass across the stage adjacent to the dartboard. There are a few tables, the bar and kitchen, and walls covered in political posters.
The pub, sitting at the corner of Shattuck and Prince streets, was opened by a group of Irish friends who had close ties to their homeland. They put a large jar on the counter, and donations from that as well as benefit concerts were sent to families of Irish political prisoners. In 1975, a group of refugees from Chile's military coup staged their own benefit at the Plough, discovered the vacant building next door was for sale, and created La Peña Cultural Center.
For the past 23 years Rose Hughes and her husband Mehrdad Naima have run the Plough. While Hughes is first-generation Irish (her parents were part of the original management), her Iranian-born husband is, as the T-shirt a friend gave him proclaims, "I.B.M." (Irish by Marriage). They have cooked, tended bar, swept floors, and watched their children grow up while preserving the Plough's ambience.
Like them, most of the staff came to the club and stayed. Music booker Misty Gamble says, "Mehrdad and Rose are my family; I'm always calling them." She took over booking ten years ago from singer Patty Spiglanin, whose band the Naked Barbies is still one of the club's most popular acts. Gamble regularly books three dozen acts a month, from country-Americana and rock to poetry slams Wednesdays through Saturdays. Sundays are reserved for the Starry Session, the Irish folk jam led by Shay Black, a member of Ireland's famous Black Family. For 25 years, Mondays have hosted the Irish dances started by the late Terry O'Neill and now run by his students. There is no official plaque on the front wall, but the Starry Plough has, in its low-key way, become one of Berkeley's most lived-in neighborhood landmarks.
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