In the blues, rambling without a place to rest your head is a of right of passage.
But this rolling stone decided to pick up some moss in the greenest country of all-- Ireland. For whatever reason I've always been drawn to places with roots in ancient and yet living traditions-- like New Orleans or Ireland. People are still playing songs from a hundred years ago and it's a common language.
So I've been searching for the type of musical grounding I never had growing up in New York. Discovering New Orleans was like an epiphany for me-- as if all the music I had loved previously had come from this source I never knew about. Living there the past four years has been an immense blessing.
My writing and my original music has grown as I have grown, and upon my first visit to Ireland in March I was struck by the depth and soul of the music here. I knew I had to come back and dig in. When I write a song I try to create the sound song itself calls for, and the more music I know deeply and truly on a fundamental level the more I can draw upon the wealth of human experience that has developed around that particular culture.
So I arrived here in Doolin yesterday. I'm spending three weeks here with a phenomenal flute player named Christy Barry, a well-loved musician in the area known as a link to an older, lost generation of players. We had met during that March visit-- I only spent one night in Doolin, but when I joined Christy for the weekly session at his house and afterwards at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, there was an instant musical connection. Here was an old soul I knew I could relate to, and who had a wealth of knowledge of this music and a perspective I could appreciate. So I made fast plans to come back only a few months later.
Christy picked me up from the airport in Shannon yesterday. We caught up quickly, as if I had never left, as we drove down the winding roads and rolling green hills dotted with cows and sheep. As his Irish twang became etched in my brain I felt a strong connection to the place; it was like a homecoming of sorts.
We stopped to check out the views on the beach at lahinch, and the view from donegal castle looking down over Doolin. But the most poignant moment of our drive from the Airport to Christy and his partner Sheila's abode was when we stopped at St. Bridget's well.
Outside the well a man came up to us, holding posters of his missing son, William Maugham, relating the story of one night last year when his son ran into some trouble in Dublin and was never seen again. I could tell how the grief had worn him and his wife down, as their grandchildren ran curiously about the garden outside the well.
I told them how my twin sister Molly had passed only this past October, and they said they would keep her in their prayers, and I promised to keep their son and his girlfriend in mine. As I entered the well I felt the cool damp air and sensed the presence of the many lost family and friends, often gone too early, whose pictures were plastered all about the walls. Christy gave me some coins to throw in the well and I had a brief moment of silence for my sister.
It was a fateful meeting, a moment to think about my sister in a healing environment, whose passing has weighed so heavily on my parents and I for the past 8 months. It also spoke to the fragility of life. I reflected upon her passion and energy but also her tendency to dance with fire, to get too close to the edge, until one day she fell off. After leaving, Christy and I talked about how wonderful the family was that we met, though we sensed that there was a darker underbelly to the story of how their son was murdered, and Christy said the family name was somewhat infamous in Dublin. The family's hope, as we hugged under the opening into the well, was to recover their son's body, so they could properly lay him to rest.
We left the well and drove on. The sign outside Christy and Sheila's house, inscribed "Doolin Music House" for their weekly music sessions in the living room, signaled our arrival. Sheila greeted me with a big hug and we had a big Irish breakfast shortly thereafter. Sheila and Christy have been unbelievably welcoming, and I am very grateful to have another family in Ireland, and Sheila implored me to call her cousin Sheila while Christy jokingly called me his son or grandson when introducing me around town.
After a brief nap, we went out to get some pizza with the intention of going back home early and resting for the first night of my trip, which was also a rare night off for Christy. But Christy has many local friends and is quite a legend around town. He has played music all around the area for 50 plus years, and with his laughing nature he seemed to always be the person in the room everybody wanted to hang out with, he's great "craic" as they say here. My kind of people! No better person to introduce me to the local musicians, and he would rave about how I was a musical genius and phenomenal singer as I blushed and feigned modesty behind him.
So although we only intended to go out for pizza, we inevitably were drawn to the Roadside Tavern next door, where there was a trio of flute, concertina, and guitar, with the concertina player Nathan switching to violin every so often. They were playing moving music, beautiful in its simplicity, just the raw essentials, a breath of fresh air to Christy who had seen many a session get overloaded with too many players cramming too many notes into the music. A great first session in town, and I would be seeing Nathan all around town the next few days.
After an hour or so we drove over to McGanns, home to my favorite beef and Guinness stew from the last trip, and heard a phenomenal trio there as well. It consisted of Charlene McGowan on vocals and Bodhran, Floraine Blancke on harp, and Kevin Griffen on tenor banjo. Charlene had a beautiful and experienced voice and Christy related to me how she was a popular singer throughout Ireland and Europe. Kevin Griffen's banjo playing was stellar, and I really enjoyed the sound of his Irish tenor, which had the pluck of the banjo I am used to but was lowered and deeper in tone. It rounded out the melodies nicely--Irish tenor banjo is tuned lower and has a longer Neck than a typical tenor banjo. But i was totally blow away by the beautiful Floraine Blancke and the amount of ground she covered on the harp. I had never heard harp played in an ensemble like that. She covered the bass notes and chords, almost reminding me of stride piano technique, and her style of rhythmic accompaniment hinted at other worlds of rhythm contained in the same groove. That's one of my favorite things about music, when you can really bring to focus the unity of different rhythmic feels and numerical groupings. It's all one when you get down to it. New Orleans has such a deep pocket, I think those type of rhythmic juxtapositions are a special part of the music there.
I grabbed a guitar Kevin had on the wall above him and accompanied them on a couple of Irish tunes, before singing a few songs of my own. I sang one or two originals and a New Orleans classic. I thought the mic was a bit too hot and felt like I was kind of thrown off on my performance but such it is sometimes-- I never really let my own perception of my playing, good or bad, phase me. My songs and playing were very well received, we closed out the night with one more tune all-together, and I conversed with the musicians and bar patrons for another 40 minutes before calling it a night.
It was an excellent first day here, Christy constantly imploring me that I'm welcome here and can spend the days as I see fit. I'm looking forward to several weeks of writing, learning new Irish songs, playing sessions, and making connections with a plethora of phenomenal musicians. Doolin, what a legendary musical town you are, your timeless stories reaching out across the world of music and beyond.