By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
NOTE: Following is the first installment of an occasional series, “inSession,” which will profile regularly occurring Irish and Celtic music sessions in, or reasonably near, the Greater Boston area.
Where: 96 Winthrop St., Harvard Square, Cambridge
When: Thursdays, 6:30-9:30 p.m.
Began: Fall of 2008
What was once the House of Blues has become a weekly House o’Tunes, thanks to Liam Hart and Sean Connor, organizers of the Tommy Doyle’s session – which along with Tuesday night’s John Harvard Brew Pub session a few blocks east (to be profiled in a future installment) has helped make Harvard Square a new hub for Irish and Celtic music.
The session takes place on the middle floor of the three-floor restaurant, tucked in a corner nearest the entrance to the kitchen. Those who don’t mind sports mixed in with their musical enjoyment will be happy to note the presence of three nearby televisions, usually tuned to ESPN or NESN. Where once the session participants fit neatly around the circular table, nowadays there’s usually an overflow – and that’s due in no small part to the welcoming nature of Hart and Connor, who have a goodly supply of gregariousness and humor.
“We really do make an effort to include people, especially new people,” says Hart, a New Jersey native who plays guitar, flute and whistle. “We always ask them to start tunes, if they’re comfortable doing that.”
(“We don’t always ask them to start a second one,” he quips. “That’s off the record,” interjects Connor.)
“I like to play 13 fast reels as much as anybody, but when we do that I try to make sure some of them are ones that people are likely going to know,” Hart continues. “I think we’re patient with people who are learning. We constantly acquire new people and watch them get better.”
Connor, a Mayo native whose fiddle style draws on Sliabh Luachra and Sligo, says that Tommy Doyle’s seems to have become a destination for habitués of the immensely popular slow session at The Green Briar in Brighton.
“The Briar is a brilliant session because it gives people that opportunity to come in on whatever platform they may be,” he explains. “But if you’re a beginner, and you’re kind of stuck in the back during the regular session, sometimes you can’t really hear yourself gel. So some people come here, and after a few months you notice you can hear them playing louder, and they’re picking up tunes. It’s great to see that development.”
Connor remembers being “petrified” as a 13-year-old at the idea of playing out in public, but found that sessions were the way to build confidence and to get to know other musicians who would take him under their wings. “I just thought it was the coolest way of communicating with people, and that’s as true today as it was then. They may be shy at first, but they keep coming back and you see the music working for them.
“I just love sessions because they represent the purest form of the music. The session has the most soul of any musical gathering.”
The soul, and the heart, of this session is especially apparent when Connor leads a marathon jig medley (with a certain affinity for the D-modal variety), tromping his foot for emphasis, with Hart switching off between flute and guitar. When it ends, the players lean back in their chairs, replenish their supply of oxygen, perhaps asking Connor the name and origin of a particular tune in the medley – information Connor enthusiastically gives.
Connor and Hart are both splendid singers and are more than happy to lead a song or sing along with someone else. And don’t be surprised if you hear Hart lilting in the midst of a tune set, even as he’s strumming away.
“My preference would be to sing one song per hour,” says Hart, who can sing in Gaelic as well as English. “I’ll sing more than that if no one else will. We kind of see what happens and who’s there. If there’s a night when we have some great players, and the tunes are savage, we’ll spend maybe 80 percent of the three hours playing tunes. But if we have three or four friends there who sing, we figure why not take advantage of the resources that are available?”
Strangest Tommy Doyle’s session ever? “There was a fella in there once,” recalls Connor, “who decided he would be a great help to the musicians if he were to dance next to each one of them on the outskirts of the table. And I kindly asked him to sit down and not annoy people, and he starts going around and asking everyone, ‘Am I annoying you? Am I annoying you?’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah, you’re annoying me. You’re not even next to me and you’re annoying me.’
“So after he’d been telling us all night how great we all were, he then proceeded to tell us that we were just rubbish and not worth the time of day. And then he left. And then he came back and did it all over again.”
Hart adds, “We actually don’t get much of that here. During the school year, there are a lot of students or others associated with Harvard, and they really seem to be into the music. And in the summer it’s great because we get so many tourists through. Also, because we’re right here in Harvard Square, it’s easy for people passing through town to drop in; the other night, we had sitting in with us the flute player Vinnie Cronin – whose father Paddy Cronin is, of course, well-known to many here — while he was visiting.”
“We really do enjoy it here,” says Connor. “There are those nights in the dead of winter when it seems there’s hardly anyone around. But then the next week, the place is full, there’s lots of great playing and singing, and people in the crowd are coming up to you and saying ‘Thank you.’ That means a lot. Of course, if they didn’t, we’d still be doing it anyway. But it’s a nice bonus.”