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.
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.)