These weekly get-togethers, where musicians, like the members of the Foghorn Stringband, play old fiddle tunes and sing an occasional song, whet my musical appetite and tuned my soul.
One night, ten years ago, I was racing across Portland, Oregon, hoping to see the Foghorn Stringband, an old-time group that had a weekly residence at a pub called Moon and Sixpence. I wasn’t expecting a concert, per se. It was a session, a weekly get-together for musicians to play old fiddle tunes and sing an occasional song. The idea of a “session” can be a little confusing to first-time listeners, but, in this case, the players were unamplified in a corner, as opposed to onstage, and they were not “jamming.” (The term “session,” in this context, comes from the Irish word seisiún, pronounced sesh-oon, which is used to describe a loose but organized collaborative musical event.) There was very little improvisation; instead, these tunes were played seven, eight, or even ten times, depending on the player’s level of interest or delight. After the final rendition, they’d shift seamlessly to a different tune, and then perhaps another. As you heard each song again, it seemed either to unfold or to repeatedly reintroduce itself.
I got to the pub late and, sure enough, the Foghorn players—on the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and upright bass—were performing with a few others, and a few of the musicians were talking about Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, an extraordinary Irish musician who, it’s safe to say, changed the course of Irish music. In turn, he influenced American traditional music (or at least the way it was played in the eighties and nineties) with his dedicated combination of faithfulness and innovation: beautiful open-chord voicings and chord combinations that hinted at jazz and chamber music. Ó Domhnaill, who died in Dublin a few years before, played with various musicians in several different configurations, but is maybe best known as a member of the Bothy Band, which also included his sister Tríona and the fiddler Kevin Burke. Just talking about him with the musicians in the pub, and hearing about the people he played with, many of them regular players at the Moon and Sixpence, I could feel a sadness at his passing—even though I didn’t personally know Ó Domhnaill—and joy, too, given that in the pub were so many people who knew and loved his playing, some even playing at that moment. The air was thick with respect and friendship.
I was completely energized by the songs and tunes, and, as far as musicianship went, the pub was bright with stars—players known, for the most part, by other players. I even ran into a couple of musicians and singer-songwriters I knew from New York. One was Kristin Andreassen, who lives in Nashville, and who is, I subsequently learned, a kind of specialist in creating musical community. The other was Ryan McGiver, a guitar player, stonemason, and cider maker. I had an early flight but could hardly bring myself to leave, and, when I did get outside, I heard the voice of Caleb Klauder, a Foghorn singer, which dragged me back in for one more song.
The whole evening was a revelation, given that I had lived in Portland in the nineties but had managed to miss Ó Domhnaill and Foghorn playing. I treated this as a mistake that I would not repeat. I grew up in an Irish-American family, and I had to push past the stereotypical performances of “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in order to explore the relationship between, for example, Irish fiddle tunes and the old-time Appalachian tunes that were coming into vogue in the early nineties, as a part of the craze for what was then more and more frequently referred to as roots music. I had started regularly going to one session in New York, tagging along with a singer I knew. I’d have a beer with the rest of the bar’s patrons—some of whom were listening to the session, and some not so much. This half-heartedness was fine with the musicians, who seemed to work to be in the background, to make the music part of the landscape of the pub. There I was, meanwhile, trying hard to be what you would call an active listener without becoming a nerdy fan, as is my wont.
There are a number of sessions around New York and in cities around the country (and the world), but the one that I attended regularly for a decade was a traditional Irish session. It attracted fiddlers and flute players who, yes, played Irish reels, jigs, waltzes, and hornpipes, but who also played those Appalachian tunes, old and beautiful like rare apple varieties or wildflowers. In my first years, a fiddler from Virginia regularly showed up, as did a Scottish fiddler and scores of players visiting from Ireland. On a few occasions, Québécois musicians wandered in, with clogs, and eventually started dancing; it wasn’t clear to me whom they knew. This was at the Brass Monkey, on Little West Twelfth Street, in Manhattan—a pretty low-key session on Sunday afternoons. The flutes and fiddles were hidden in plain sight in the increasingly garish Meatpacking District, with its click-clacks of high heels and key-lock beeps of Jersey-plated Mercedeses. Seeing an amazing fiddler from Scotland in a crowded Manhattan bar was like seeing a rare bird in Central Park. Mostly, people played the old tunes, but, occasionally, someone might sing a song. I began to understand that hearing a songwriter sing an old song is like hearing a poet recite a favorite poem, a studied curation.
A few Sundays ago, having moved away from New York, I sat down to make a list of some of the musicians whom I had seen on Sunday afternoons at the Brass Monkey. There was Cleek Schrey, the fiddler and composer from Virginia, who was at Princeton last November, performing alongside Iarla Ó Lionáird—the legendary Irish sean-nós-style singer—and Ellen Fullman and her room-sized long-string instrument. There were Cillian Vallely and Kevin Crawford, members of Lúnasa, who lately seem to be showing up on Sunday afternoons down at the South Street Seaport’s Dead Rabbit. I remembered Jason Sypher—a bass player, who has been touring with Rhiannon Giddens—and Ivan Goff, a musicologist whose gigs run the gamut from Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle to a remembrance for the poet Seamus Heaney, at Cooper Union, in November, 2013. And there were so many fiddlers, including that guy from Scotland whose name I never caught and Rose Flanagan, who learned, as a kid in the Bronx, from Martin Mulvihill—a legendary fiddler from Ballygoughlin, County Limerick. Rose occasionally brought along her own students to play.
In so many ways, the Sunday session inspired me through the week, whetting my musical appetite and tuning my soul. The songs and players worked like the credits on the LPs that I used to read when I was a teen-ager, when I’d take a seven-dollar chance (1979 prices) on a new record by a band I’d never heard of, just because of a familiar drummer or guitar player. The reason I wanted to see “Blaze,” Ethan Hawke’s film about the singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, was that I recognized a session player in the film: Dana Lyn, a composer and fiddler who recently toured with Taylor Mac and has frequently collaborated with Hawke. (She plays Townes Van Zandt’s girlfriend in “Blaze.”) The way I learned about the legendary (in certain circles) Sweetback Sisters’ “Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular” was by hearing Emily Miller, one of the Sisters, sing one Sunday. Ditto for the Sweetback drummer, Stefan Amidon, who, as it happens, is the brother of Sam Amidon, who is well known as an innovative folk artist but is also a great traditional Irish fiddler. Anaïs Mitchell came once, around the time a version of her folk opera, “Hadestown,” opened at the New York Theatre Workshop. (It comes to Broadway this spring.) And I remember Aoife O'Donovan playing at the Brass Monkey before she was known as a member of I’m With Her and a frequent guest on “Live from Here,” the new incarnation of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Chris Thile, that radio show’s host, is among the veterans of the session at the 11th St. Bar, which starts around 10 P.M., after the session at the Brass Monkey. I never went to that later session when I lived in New York, fearing that more than three or four hours of great tunes might just overwhelm me.
An occupational hazard associated with writing is that you meet a lot of writers who talk about writing in a way that makes you want to get into plumbing. But, when I started regularly going to sessions, I met a number of musicians who talked about writing in a way that was inspiring, in part because they were good writers and in part because music and books are (in my mind, anyway) the same thing. I was thinking about this recently while listening to new albums by the two players who hosted many of the Brass Monkey sessions: Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary. For me, both albums highlight the collaborations among the artists who manage to work in what, before listening in on sessions, I might have thought of as a random backstage of the music world—vaguely related to concerts and CDs—but that I now see as a community. It’s a community that’s not so much behind the scenes as it is the landscape itself, the place where musicians nourish themselves by playing music in the company of people they admire, respect, and enjoy.
“Alameda,” the title track on Hamer’s album, is a rock ballad with crispy guitar licks and geographic lyrics about a wandering worker, who is maybe the author, but maybe not. In the way that it talks about a long search for work, it reminds me of Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River song series, or maybe the old Stan Rogers song that, if I remember correctly, I’d heard Hamer sing in the bar. “I was born and I was raised / Where the valley meets the bay,” he sings. “All I own I carry around / Guadeloupe, San Jose.” “Moving Day,” another song on the CD, is now up there with Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” as one of my favorite songs about moving—a wistful genre that I reviewed last winter, when we moved from the city, leaving behind, among other things, easy access to the session I regularly visited.
And then, sure enough, Hamer plays guitar on “All Souls,” O’Leary’s album, though the production of the record couldn’t be more different from that of his own. It’s produced by O’Leary and Benjamin Lazar Davis. Davis is a member of what I think of as the East Coast’s coolest avant-pop group, Cuddle Magic, and this past summer he released a solo CD that has a gorgeous synth openness, which seems to be continents away from traditional Irish reels (even though, when you think about what, say, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill was up to you come to see it isn’t). When I listen to the O’Leary song entitled “Our Old Dominion,” I want to describe it as an Ian Tyson-esque ballad about a man stranded on an island and then lost at sea, but it feels more like a chain of imagistic verses that take you through a dreamscape, like jumping from one rock to the next in a stream of keyboards and pedal steel. “Bywater,” named for the New Orleans neighborhood, features Bridget Kearney, of Lake Street Dive, and itself feels like a walk to look at the river: “It can rain and it can blow / The sky could crack for all I know / but sit you where the river flows, out to the gulf of Mexico.”
These days, with Spotify and YouTube and rents in New York City the way they are, I don’t know how musicians survive. You perform, you sell some CDs, and if you can pay the rent then you get to live within subway distance of players you like and want to play with—or so it seems to this outsider. Judging from the way it goes at a session, the more great players, the better the music, and the healthier the local musical ecology, and, frankly, the general public health. This is what I was thinking, not too long ago, when my wife and I drove back to New York, to hear Foghorn Stringband play in Brooklyn, at Jalopy Theatre, to launch their latest CD, “Rock Island Grange.” The configuration of Foghorn Stringband has changed slightly in the past decade, but their sound is still driven by Caleb Klauder’s locomotive-powered mandolin and Sammy Lind’s lithe and sweet fiddle. Of course, it reminded me of that night a long time ago in Portland, when we were remembering Mícheál O Domhnaill, and it reminded me of a bunch of other nights. There were musicians at Jalopy whom I had seen at the Brass Monkey—the fiddler Stephanie Coleman, for instance—and people I’d met there. There was dancing. I had a beer. I knew some tunes and heard some new ones. On the drive home, I put “Rock Island Grange” on the car CD player. It was a long way back to our new apartment, but, in the company of those familiar voices and tunes, I felt a little like we were already home.