This might not be Ireland, but on any given night, you can find one (or more) quality trad sessions right here in the grand City of New York. Each has it's own distinct flavor: some are mass gatherings, others are just two or three musicians around a table. But, close your eyes, and you might just think you're at O'Donoghue's or Sin-e (except New York musicians don't talk nearly as much between reels.) Here's what you can find any given week:
Sunday: Ceol, Smith St., Brooklyn
When I showed up here, I found four musicians, all in their 20's, seated around a small table in a back room with a fire blazing (it was a gas flame, but who's counting?) The gathering might have been small, but their sound was as large and polished as The Bothy Band. Only negative: instead of a bodhran, the drummer brought his tam-tam, which came off like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Easy, kid!
O'Neill's, 3rd Ave and 45th St.
The minute I walk into this country-style pub a stone's throw from Grand Central, the young, friendly Irish bartender (in white shirt and tie, of course) greets me warmly, asking all about me: where do I live? what do I do? what kind of music do I listen to? I tell him about my trip to Ireland, and he just listens amazed, like I'm telling him some sailor's story. "You should come here on a Saturday," he tells me. "They get a lot more players." Tonight, the music is simple, but tight and good: guitar, banjo, flute, three fiddles, a singer who does a pretty good Dylan. The place may be half-empty, but I've never felt more at home.
Monday: Landmark Tavern, 11th Ave. and 46th St.
At this venerable N.Y. Institution (circa 1855), a dozen or so amateurs, aged 30 to 80, play reels and jigs in the back room, surrounded by candles and oil paintings of Poulnabrone and Limerick. At one point, an old timer playing concertina talks a bit too long, until his friend gently cuts him off with his fiddle. The old timer responds by step dancing seated in his chair, his tweed cap bouncing left and right. Moral: only a fool tries to silence the Irish.
Mona's, Ave B and 13th St.
Who the hell starts a session at 11:30 on a Monday? Mona's, that's who. One of of the originals of Avenue B, this is your father's Irish bar, the kind of place where PBR reigns supreme (though they do have a pretty sweet deal on Thursdays offering $3 Guinness.) The young musicians sit snug against the bar, lit by the glow of the blue bar lights. Occasionally, they're interrupted by a dog come to give greetings, but more so by the friendly talk between reels. Which, by the way, is 100% authentic.
Tuesday: Dempsey's Pub, 2nd Ave. at 3rd St.
In here, I find an unusually large gathering around the front table, a mix of young and old, amateur and pro. The music's quality, and you can get a massive bowl of handcut fries for $5. Only beef: what's with the baby pints?
Swift, E 4th at Lafayette St.
Loud and obnoxious when I arrive, the music mere background to the drunken ravings of actors from the Public or some other local theater. Which is a shame, because the kids playing fiddle, concertina, banjo and guitar are actually some of the best I've heard, befitting of a session that's hosted the likes of Susan McKeown, Altan, and Lunasa, among others. Eventually, I scare up a seat next to the musicians, and it's just a sweet, penetrating sound, full of plangent pitches. I can hear them swapping ideas on what to play next, and how.
Thursday: Paddy Reilly's, 2nd Ave. at 29th St.
Paddy's is probably the best-known Irish music bar in New York, home to longtime regulars The Prodigals and, less regularly, Paddy Reilly himself. And, if you've ever been here on St. Patrick's Day, the whole day is wall-to-wall music - and people. On Thursdays, they give the place over to a session, which feels late (10:30) until I remember that "half-ten" is the standard start time for sessions in Ireland. Getting here "early," I get to hear the lively banter between a pair of fifty-somethings and a plucky Columbia grad student who more than holds her own. When they finally start, they use amplification, which is both distorting and unnecessary: there are a grand total of four people here, including the bartender and myself. Still, their sound is good - almost worth the $7 they charge for Guinness. (More pics below.)