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Session Obsession 

Getting jiggy with Irish music

Vermonters really get their Eire up this time of year. From Burlington's Irish Heritage Festival to the S.D. Ireland cement-truck convoy to green beer at happy hour, it seems everyone enjoys St. Patrick's Day even if they can't claim ancestry from the Emerald Isle. The best part of this celebration, arguably, is the music - for instance, Irish-music "godfather" Tommy Makem at Burlington City Hall Auditorium last Sunday, and Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill at the Flynn this Thursday.

But long after the big acts pack up their tin whistles and go home, locals will still be fiddling around: Every week, somewhere in Vermont, you can find an Irish or other traditional music session. This is "not a gig or a formal performance," explains Irish fiddler Sarah Blair of Montpelier. "It is basically an impromptu gathering of musicians who play tunes together, typically in the same genre." Blair has played in and hosted such gatherings around New England since 1992.

Whether you play or just like to listen, there's nothing quite like an Irish music session. The appeal of these tunes is truly timeless, and so is the thrill of not knowing what will happen. Case in point: Wednesday nights at Burlington's Radio Bean. For more than four years this cozy coffeeshop/club has hosted some of the best session players this side of Lake Champlain. Every week musicians muster their valor and polish their chops, sharing tunes with each other and anyone within earshot. However, the music they play is not rehearsed, and it's quite possible that some of them have never played together before.

Though a Celtic session is not the same as a performance, a player can still experience stage fright. My first time fiddling at one of these things, not so long ago, I was terrified. Would I be good enough? Would I know all the songs? Would I be able to keep up? Would I be accepted into the group? Like any other "first," your debut in a session is intimidating. But the more you do it, the better you get, and the better you get, the more addicted you become. Playing in a session is like speaking a language known only to the musicians, but the sound can be interpreted and enjoyed by all.

And indeed, part of the fun is the challenge of randomly playing tune after tune without knowing what's coming next. It's like driving your car without knowing where you're going - you're thrilled when you finally arrive. Sometimes you change keys, or the timing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; the trial is what makes it exciting.

Once you get past your fears, the energy created by a session is almost inexplicable to anyone outside the group. It's a lift in the music when everyone comes together - the tunes are in perfect sync and the sound intensifies. "When things are going well and you are creating that trance, you feel like you are a part of something," says Scott Wilson, one of Burlington's finest Irish banjo players. "When you're locked in with that group of people doing the same thing, it is really special." For a traditional musician, this is as good as it gets.

Though a session appears to be freeform and open to all, before they try to join in novices should know certain unwritten rules that help keep the music as pure and beautiful as it can be.

Most of the time a session has an official host, who may be paid by the venue owner; other times host responsibilities are assumed by "alpha" players - generally the most experienced musicians who know the most tunes. Their job is essentially one of quality control. "It is perfectly acceptable for the host to tell someone they cannot play if they are compromising the integrity of the music," says Wilson. "A poor player can be very disruptive."

Good session musicians know hundreds of tunes. For a newcomer this can be a bit disheartening; the tunes stream out one after another, sometimes so fast you can barely catch your breath, never mind figure out what's being played. But no matter how many songs you know, it is important to know the "right" ones. Each session usually has its own commonly played repertoire.

"If you are new to the session scene, the best thing to do is to go to a local session, and sit and listen first to get a feel for the vibe they are creating," advises Blair. "Record the session and learn the tunes that appeal to you and sound familiar... This is a great way to learn." Differ-ent sessions in varying genres expect different skill levels, too, so players should be able to find one that best fits their tastes and talents.

In a Cape Breton-style session, sometimes just one fiddler will play at a time with an accompanist. But in most other sessions the musicians sit in a circle, one person starts a tune, and everybody joins in. "The general aim of the session is to get the maximum number of musicians playing on the maximum number of tunes," according to Barry Foy's Field Guide to the Irish Music Session.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the most basic rule for musicians is to practice, practice, practice - before you show up for a public jam.

This communal music is certainly not a new idea. Tradi-tional music has been passed down "by ear" for generations all over the world - that's what made it traditional. The last 20 years has brought a huge resurgence of traditional Irish music thanks to bands such as The Chieftains and The Clancy Brothers and troupes such as Riverdance.

Clearly, Vermont has its own subculture of traditional musicians, eager to break out their instruments and share tunes amongst friends and strangers alike. Whether in barns or bars, on porches or stages, their common goal is to create music that inspires, transcends and just plain grooves. Even when it's not St. Patrick's Day.

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Katrina Vantyne


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