On the ‘rocks’


Bartender Karen Irwin serves drinks with a side of singing

The lady who pours drinks in the afternoon pours out her heart on Tuesday evenings. And people drink it in.

“She sings like an angel and rocks like Janis (Joplin),” says her boss, Patrick Mullen, owner of Patrick’s Restaurant on Main Street in Zionsville, where Karen Irwin tends bar.

On Tuesday evenings around 6, Irwin leaves the bar to grab a microphone and sing for Patrick’s patrons. Anyone walking the brick street at that time can hear her two blocks away from the Patrick’s terrace.

It’s not just her voice that’s big. Irwin is three-fourths of an inch shy of six feet tall and wears size 11 men’s shoes. Still, she finds girly sandals that fit. She knows the lyrics to hundreds of songs and, with Scott Ballantine on guitar, she belts them out one after another. She can rock, swoon, swing and croon.

She does Janis Joplin proud and ends many a performance with Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”

Asked about her attraction to the late, great rocker, Irwin says that the best singing comes when a vocalist is “invested in the moment.”

“If they are singing about joy or suffering, you hear it,” she says.

As to her own joy and suffering, a man named Sam was the cause of both. From the moment they met, she loved him and he loved her. They lived together for three years and were engaged to be married.

Then Sam committed the ultimate betrayal. He “dropped dead of a heart attack at 49 at the corner of 60th Street and Kingsley,” she reports matter-of-factly.

Not that there was anything matter-of-fact about her grief. She disposed of some of his ashes, but says she had “a big bag left over. I called it my bag of boyfriend, and I slept with it. Finally, my girlfriends said I was being too weird. So I thought it over and went to Build-a-Bear.”

One can guess the outcome of that venture. Today, an old-fashioned-looking Teddy named Sam sits in an old-fashioned-looking chair in Irwin’s apartment over the antique store on Main Street. Inside Sam the teddy, near his heart, is a little plastic bag of the original Sam’s ashes.

It’s apparent that Irwin comes from creative stock. She is the poster child for a successful IPS schooling, having timed it just right when money went into the arts. She was one of six freshmen accepted into Broad Ripple’s theater program when it was a magnet school for the performing arts and the humanities. She later studied theater at the University of Evansville.

“I think I’m a better actor than singer,” she says. “I became a singer because I wasn’t getting enough work as an actor.” She’s scored an acting gig this summer from mid-July to mid-August at the Phoenix Theatre in “With a Whimper.”

Meanwhile, she loves living and working on Zionsville’s brick street. She signed on with Mullen because she believes in what he and his wife, Beth, are trying to do. “He’s not in the business just to make money but to contribute to being a part of the community,” she says. “I’ve run into it a lot on this street – people who seem to have a lot more integrity, community and compassion. I don’t know if it is philosophical or spiritual. It isn’t just about how much money you can make and who you can get it from.”

Her contribution? Well, she must be doing something right, according to Patrick’s patrons. Jill and Tim O’Connor, from Carmel, dance to the music. “We only come here because of her,” says Jill.

And Joe McCann, who came to hear his guitar teacher, Ballantine, had never heard Irwin sing. Asked what he thought of Irwin’s performance, McCann replied, “How about holy crap! She’s good. That was fun!”

Which is what Mullen wants to hear. “A restaurant is an entertainment business,” he says, “and (Karen) gets that.”