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It’s a Saturday night at Kelly’s Irish Times on Capitol Hill, and Pete Papageorge is doing the same thing he’s done for 28 years: getting ready to play music for a bunch of drunks.
He decides to open with an Irish bar song.
While local dives like Hawk ‘n’ Dove have undergone a noticeable spit shine in the last few years, Kelly’s Irish Times still peddles some of the basic comforts of an Irish pub. Papageorge, the bar’s longtime in-house musician, contributes a lot to its atmosphere. He’s been called a human jukebox because he can play almost any song by ear, but he favors country, Irish songs, and classic rock. For his first set tonight, he sticks to classics like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Black Velvet Band,” and “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.”
“I was never really a Top 40 type of dude,” he says. He doesn’t care much for crowd-pleasers, tending to stick to his own favorites. “I like songs … that I happen to think work, that I personally like,” he says. His repertoire might be as familiar as his face. When he’s not playing golden oldies on the Hill, Papageorge works as an extra in film and TV. He’s been a card-carrying member of the Screen Actor’s Guild since 1999. Since then, he’s appeared on HBO’s Veep, the Netflix series House of Cards, and David Simon’s The Corner (though his scene was cut from the final product, he says). He’s also done a good amount of voiceover work: He lent his pipes to the Bethesda Softworks video game Fallout 3.
The night at Kelly’s has been Papageorge’s most consistent gig, but his tools have changed. On a recent Saturday, he was playing a new hollow-body Gretsch guitar. “I’ve been trying to get the right sound from it,” he says of the flashy-sounding instrument. “I think I’m finally understanding it.” The Gretsch was a gift from the bar for his 25th anniversary in October. Though, the anniversary was actually his 27th. Bartender J.R. Wolfensberger, who’s worked at Kelly’s since 1998, says Papageorge didn’t have the heart to correct them.
From Papageorge’s perch, he has a pretty good view of the room—a near panopticon of barroom bad behavior. Near the Big Buck Hunter and Golden Tee arcade games, a couple makes out to his version of Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” Papageorge has probably seen a lot of making out—and some stuff he’d rather not discuss. “Sometimes, I see things and, I don’t know, I’d really rather not comment on what I see because, honestly, I don’t see that much,” he says. Papageorge just wants to get the party started. He doesn’t seem to take an interest in the boozy mating rituals playing out around him. He’s been married to his wife, Gale, for 20 years. He made a point of calling her before our interview.
The singer/songwriter has a strict regimen. He takes multiple breaks during his sets. He’s been a vegetarian since he was in his twenties, and he avoids alcohol. Wolfensberger says that’s part of what makes Papageorge a different kind of bar musician. “Pete’s not your typical bar entertainer who’s been drinking for years while he’s playing,” he says.
“I get proper rest, proper food,” says Papageorge. “I get some exercise, probably could use more. I always try to be a little bit health-conscious. I don’t think you’d last long if you didn’t take care of that. So I always try to be aware of it.”
With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, Papageorge is a little wary. “I understand it’s really different in Ireland. It’s not quite the big holiday that it is here. It’s certainly a party. It’s like New Years and Mardi Gras all together,” he says.
The most distinctive part of Papageorge’s sound is a harmonizing vocal effect he uses on some songs. He says he began using it four or five years ago. Over the years, he’s tried out different tricks to keep his act fresh. The effect he’s using now has an unusual sound—like Auto-Tune from another galaxy.
Last year, Papageorge starred in the pilot of a web series called Hard Fix. He played a guy named Declan Kelly, the fictional owner of a real bar—Kelly’s Irish Times—who does dirty work for pols on Capitol Hill. But the acting jobs haven’t taken him out of the music biz. He says he’s got an album of original songs in the works. “I’ve been telling people that for years now, but it really is coming close,” he says.
So it seems that Papageorge and Kelly’s are inseparable—in all spheres of his life.
“People expect him to be here,” said Wolfensberger. “I think he’s become an institution.”
Pete Papageorge plays at Kelly’s Irish Times Thursdays, Fridays, and three Saturdays a month. Check his schedule at petepapageorge.com.
Photo by Nico Dodd