Sunday, June 12, 2005

Music Houses

In many traditional, local, and vernacular cultures, music is not something that lives in recital halls or on concert stages, but rather in houses that are "friendly to music." That means private or semi-private places where musicians could be sure of a welcome--not just a friendly stage on which to perform, but an audience who understood and appreciated what they did, hosts who might feed them or provide a bed, and a community conducive to music. Amongst the great travelling pipers of 19th century Ireland, many of the musicians would not even play if they felt the environment or the people were unappreciative of the music. And of course that is still the case with Indian classical music, Native American music, and many others.

In the modern world, with the infection of purchase-and-sale models into music making, there are far fewer houses friendly to music. But every now and then you find a private individual, or, if you're lucky, a publican, who understands that the music is about more than selling beer, and that you can build community over time if you simply have a friendly house and a respectful atmosphere.

Here are some of the great ones that I know (or knew):

  • The Idler: SW corner of Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s.
    • A basement bar with a front room and a back (always a good recipe for a music bar). No windows, low ceilings, "skull-buster" low-hanging pipes. Almost never anybody in the back room, which meant that almost anybody could play there. You couldn't sit on a high stool to play because your head would be in amongst the ductwork, but the music back there was truly amazing. Favorite shows: any one of the many solo gigs that guitarist Dean Magraw did in the early '80s. As the night got later and later, Dean would sink deeper and deeper into the groove and the music would become more and more magical.
  • The Wild Beet: SE corner of Courthouse Square, Bloomington, Indiana, in the mid-1990s
    • Second location for a very popular restaurant corporation in Bloomington. Small room, brick walls, smoke-free, plate-glass windows behind the stage looking out on the street. Lenny's, the parent corporation, made their own beer, and the Lenny's black porter is still the best American microbrew I've ever tasted. Grey Larsen led a session there for a couple of years. Initially it was a 21-and-over situation, but then the bar made some modifications to get around Indiana's labrythine licensing laws and allow kids in the place, and that made it magical. Set-dancers, some of the great Bloomington champion players coming out, kids running through the crowd, free pizza post-session for the players.
    • But they tried to be both a supper club and a nightclub: two shows a night (5-8 and 10-2), and they started futzing with the menu, and the bar started losing money. And they closed. Rich Remsberg shot the Celtic Backup cover there after they closed but before they were sold.
  • Upstairs at the Crane Bar, Galway, Ireland
    • Favorite session bar in Galway City. It's owned by one of Jr Crehan's nephews and a couple of other musicians and it's a very friendly house to music. Traditional music sessions upstairs 7 nights a week, sometimes even not crowded. Best session I ever heard there was a "lock-in" one Sunday after Mass when tenor David Stattelman and I managed to sneak in on a song session downstairs. Lovely group of old men singing local songs.
  • Spellman’s, Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, Ireland
    • Neal Spellman owns the most popular session bar in Ballaghaderreen, not far from the borders of Sligo and Mayo. The great flute- and fiddle-player Peter Horan still anchors sessions there. Neal's gone out of his way to make his pub friendly to musicians, especially during the Douglas Hyde summer school ever July. Cramped quarters in the snug where the music happens.
  • More, with commentary coming up:
    • The Burren, Davis Square, Somerville Massachusetts
    • Jack’s in Cambridge Mass
    • Saturday Night in Marblehead, Massachusetts
    • The Plough and Stars, San Franscisco, CA
    • Torpey's, Tulla, Co. Clare
    • An Spailpin Fanach, Cork City
    • The Corner House, Cork City
    • Pepper's, Feakle, Co. Clare
    • Dolan's and Nancy Blake's, Limerick City
    • Matt Molloy's, Westport, Co. Roscommon
    • Shoot the Crows, Sligo Town
    • the nameless pub at the top of the village, East Durham, NY, where we played all night and the landlord brought us ham-and-butter sandwiches in the morning
    • Conor Byrnes's and the Irish Emigrant, Seattle, WA

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