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December 2008

The Reel

DSC09694 I was wandering around Killarney last night - a tourist town where every pub and bar offers "live music" - when I saw an older guy with a banjo case looking as lost as I. Tourist tip: when you're in a strange town, and you see someone over 20 with a music case, follow them.

ure enough, he led me to a little place called Kelly's Corner at the far end of town. I walk in behind him and the girl he's with, and it's an immediate explosion of sound: twenty musicians sitting around a long table at the front of the bar, making a wild, wonderful noise. It was a veritable Celtic orchestra: 4 guitars, three flutes, three fiddles, two bodhrans, two banjos, button accordion, tin whistle, and of course, pipes. It was so loud I could barely make out the bodhrans, but it never once sounded messy or imprecise. Aside from the old timer on my left, most folks seemed to be more interested in the football match on TV, or the impromptu game of Texas Hold 'em going on in back.

DSC09712 They played jigs and reels, familiar and unfamiliar. The trick comes in knowing when to start and when to stop, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, the pipes would start off, other times the flute or fiddle. Occasionally, one of the banjo or guitar players would sing, with the others joining in on the chorus. It was all very much collaborative and of-the-moment: one of the old timers complemented a young girl fiddler: "Hey, that was alright. You can come again, sure."

I've come to realize that this music is very much a living artform in this country, as much as jazz or blues is in the States. It's all about what you bring to it, and what you take away.

I'll be spending my New Year's Eve tomorrow on the coast of County Clare, where some of the best trad musicians in Ireland are said to hold court. About as far away from Times Square as you can get. (More pics below.)DSC09685

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Cork = Craic


After spending my first two days in Dublin - which were surprisingly music-free, thanks to the St. Stephen's Day holiday - I arrived in Cork last night and headed straight out for the pubs. Sunday is the day of the session in Ireland, where local musicians congregate around a table in the pub and play "trad music," fueled by a never-ending flow of pints, so I was optimistic I'd find what I'd been missing. 

The place to go here is a little hole-in-the-wall called Sin-e, just on the North side of the Lee North Channel. It's a boho, lowkey place with postcards thumbtacked to the ceiling and candles sticking out of bottles of Jack Daniels and Powers. When I got there, around 5:30, there was music upstairs, but not the sort I was expecting. It was jazz: the casual, all-players-welcome variety, which was less about virtuosity and more about free-flowing improvisation. They played standards like "West Coast Blues," "All the Things You Are" and Wes Montgomery's "406," which sounded both comforting and strange in this far-flung place.

I met up with a local guy named Dave, and he told me that the trad session would come on after the jazz.

"Well, it supposed to start around 6pm Irish time, which probably means closer to seven." 


The musicians last night were all in their 20's and included three fiddlers, a guitarist, a banjo player, a flute player and a button accordionist. The crowd paid rapt attention throughout, and fell dead silent when an older guy would occasionally chime in a cappella with some traditional folk tuneIt was all rhythm and harmony, incredibly tight and inspired, to the degree that there seemed to be something more happening than meets the eye. Or ear.

 I asked Dave what he thought about listening to trad music after jazz. 

"Well, it's all the same stuff, isn't it?" he said. "It's all about improvisation, the tune moving from one player to the next. There are no bluffers here."

We left there around nine and ended up at a place called An Bodhran, whose walls were filled with tributes to departed local stars Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy). On stage was a monster guitarist working with a slide and effects pedals that made his acoustic roar. He would've won me over if he played fewer covers, but was still a sight to see.

Off now to Killarney now, with a drive along the seacoast. Maybe a pub or two along the way. (More pics below.)


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Seansbar_070128The next time you hear from me, I'll be in Ireland: land of poets, playwrights, and some of the best live music in the world. Since my family's from there, it's also something of a pilgrimage - though I'll do my best not to be the ugly American at the session, shouting for an acoustic version of "Born on the Bayou."