Nestled in the oaken shade of the Oakleigh Garden District (OGD), Callaghan’s Irish Social Club has spent decades as Mobile’s ultimate neighborhood pub. This watering hole has earned nods from USA Today and Esquire for its top-notch fare.
These days Callaghan’s is becoming known as a launching pad for up-and-coming bands passing through the Azalea City. Co-owners John Thompson and Richie Sherer have played a big role in making Callaghan’s an intimate venue that attracts the next big act before they become superstars. With equal portions of Southern charm and hospitality, Sherer, Thompson and the Callaghan’s staff keep these big names coming back for more. Thompson and a new partner now plan to bring a little of the OGD to the Eastern Shore.
While Manci’s partner Harry Johnson’s resume includes owning the Bluegill during its glory days as a music venue on the Causeway, Thompson fell into the music venue business haphazardly. Twelve years ago, he fell for the “old school charm and comfort” of Callaghan’s and decided to leave his job as a medical sales rep and invest his time and money in this historic neighborhood pub.
“I always wanted to own a place, but nothing really struck me until this place,” Thompson said. “Even then, it was kind of a side gig. I never knew that it would turn into a full-time gig. I never knew that it would turn into a restaurant or venue like this.”
In fact, Thompson and Sherer really had no intention of making Callaghan’s a music venue. In the beginning, they only featured local solo acoustic acts such as Bobby Butchka and Phil Proctor. Hurricane Katrina changed everything. When the devastating storm hit New Orleans, many local musicians were displaced, including Grayson Capps, who relocated from NOLA to Mobile and quickly made Callaghan’s his regular Sunday gig. From there, Thompson explained, the venue began to evolve. Capps’ shows would bring the masses, as would the band El Cantador. On a whim, Thompson began marketing Callaghan’s to bands.
“We weren’t really on the map, and I still wouldn’t say that I was looking to make it a music venue,” Thompson said. “I like music, so I would just tap people I like and say, ‘What the heck! Let’s see if we can get them down here.’ Between New Orleans and Atlanta, there weren’t many places to play, so it was easy to get people.”
Alabama Shakes was one band that answered Thompson’s call, literally. At the time, the band had just changed its name from The Shakes. They were virtually unknown but had already begun to generate a buzz that attracted Red Light Management, whose roster includes artists such as Interpol, Phish and Ben Harper. Thompson initially learned of them from a kitchen worker. After getting turned on to their neo-soul sound, Thompson called Brittany Howard and eventually settled on a date. Thompson had his doubts about booking this still-obscure band, but today is glad he did.
“I finally got them once, and they blew up,” Thompson admits. “I probably could’ve had them five or six times before that, if I had been really sharp.” Today Alabama Shakes are celebrating the widespread success of their sophomore effort, “Sound & Color.”
Callaghan’s also introduced Mobile to Justin Townes Earle. A Steve Earle fan, Thompson was intrigued by the fact that he is Earle’s son. When the younger Earle made his debut at Callaghan’s with a free show, Mobile instantly fell in love with his modern Americana music tinged with classic country overtones. Earle also fell in love with Mobile. As he began a steady rise to fame, he continued to visit Callaghan’s and pack the venue. For his most recent performance there, tickets sold for $60; he played two consecutive sold-out shows.
Thompson said he owes Callaghan’s growing reputation in the music world to catching the next big act at just the right time, because they may not be able to catch them the next time they roll down the Gulf Coast.
“We have to catch them early, because we’re so little,” Thompson said. “We had Houndmouth last year, and now we can’t get them. They’re not even obtainable. Last year, St. Paul & the Broken Bones played here; now they’re opening for the (Rolling) Stones.”
Today, the Callaghan’s vibe has outgrown the OGD, and Thompson and Johnson hope to share it with the Eastern Shore by reviving another classic neighborhood bar. For decades, Manci’s Antique Bar in Daphne has drawn thousands with its quirky interior and impeccable brunch. The man behind Callaghan’s recently teamed with Johnson and bought Manci’s, and they hope it will eventually develop a similar reputation for live music. However, Thompson is humble when it comes to this acquisition.
“I had no interest whatsoever in having a second place,” Thompson said. “I don’t run this one very well. When my partner Harry Johnson called me, I went over there, and it seemed so much like Callaghan’s. It seemed like a place that I wanted to hang out.”
As far as entertainment goes, Thompson explained that they will be bringing some of “the tried and trues” to Manci’s. Patrons can expect to see local favorites such as Grayson Capps and Roman Street, along with touring acts such as Mr. Sipp and Great Peacock.
“We’re going to blend the two,” Thompson said. “We’re going to bring in some new music, but we’re going to bring in some great local acts too.”
Updated June 12 to correct the error that Harry Johnson is a partner in Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. Richie Sherer is Thompson’s partner at Callaghan’s. Johnson is his partner in Mancie’s. We regret the error.