BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
April was a cruel month indeed for Boston’s Irish music community, as word circulated that three area Irish sessions were coming to an end, including, arguably, the most iconic of them all, the Monday gathering at the Green Briar Pub in Brighton.
Also on the list were Harrington’s in Wakefield and the monthly session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown.
But news of the Green Briar’s closing – the pub itself, not just the session it had hosted for 29 years – in particular shocked and saddened musicians and non-musicians alike. Tributes cited not just the Briar session’s longevity, but also the quality of its music and, most of all, the fellowship it inspired and the valuable resource it provided as a place for less experienced musicians to learn the ropes.
There was also fervent praise for the late Larry Reynolds, head of Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann chapter, who was not only the session organizer for so many years but its public face and ambassador.
“A sad loss.” … “So many amazing memories, both of the music and the people who made it.” … “Never would’ve been a musician if not for the Briar.” Comments like these were spread far and wide via social media and personal conversation.
The grief was partly tempered when organizers for the Briar session announced that The Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square would be its new location, effective May 13 – a week after the Briar shuttered for good.
Around the same time, the Boston Uilleann Pipers Club agreed to take the organizational reins for the Canadian American Club’s Irish session on the first Thursday of each month beginning in August.
No such good news came for the 14-year-old Harrington’s session, however; its final go-round was scheduled for May 22.
Greater Boston is justifiably hailed for its Irish session scene, where it’s often been possible to find a different session taking place somewhere any day of the week. But the Briar/Harrington’s/Canadian American Club news last month prompted reflection in the Irish music community on the mortality of sessions, no matter how popular and well-supported they may be.
Sessions come, and then go, for any number of reasons: Disagreements between the musicians and the venue owner on details like scheduling, stipends for the session leaders, or whether participants get complimentary food or drink. The owner decides the session isn’t financially viable, or that customers want some other kind of entertainment. The sessioneers feel the space isn’t suitable, or conclude it’s just too difficult for someone to organize and lead the event on a regular basis.
Even when things go smoothly, there is always the possibility of the host pub or restaurant going out of business, for whatever reason – which in fact had happened to the Briar session before, when it was housed at the Village Coach House in Brookline Village from the 1970s until late 1987 when the restaurant was sold.
But while it went on, the Briar had one of the key elements to what musicians say helps make a successful, thriving session: a pub/restaurant owner who – instead of viewing the session as a gimmick, or relatively low-cost entertainment that can be arbitrarily preempted or rescheduled – sees a means of building community and camaraderie. The session therefore is an integral part, rather than an appendage, of the host venue – as foundational a feature as the food served or the drinks poured.
“The O’Connor family was wonderful to us,” said the accordionist and co-organizer Tommy Sheridan of the Briar owners. “They were behind the session all the way; they felt it was important. And they trusted us to run things. It was a great arrangement.”
And having a Larry Reynolds to run things also went a long way to fulfilling the Briar’s promise, they add. “The fact that Larry and the CCE were associated with the session, and the way they went about running it,” said Cape Cod musician Edmund Robinson, a Briar regular from 1995-2008, “gave you the strong impression of people dedicated to preserving and sharing the music – all for the sheer joy of it.”
“I think it was the general atmosphere of the place – the openness, the quality of the people –that made the session work so well here,” said Sheridan. “There seemed to be a lot of players who liked challenging one another, in a positive way.”
At the penultimate Briar gathering on April 29, guitarist Elisabeth Carter of Waltham was among the musicians settling in for the “early” session, aimed at those less experienced in Irish music, or who simply prefer to play at a slower tempo.
“Larry was so welcoming, so warm,” she recalled. “It was very important to him that if you were new to the music, or to the area, you would feel at home. He’d invite you to lead a tune, if you wanted; if you didn’t that was fine, too. And if you came back the next time, he’d remember you.”
More and more musicians filtered in, and the “session room” was near capacity within an hour. At one point, there were three accordions, three concertinas, five bodhrans, a couple of guitars, a smattering of whistles and an ever-increasing number of fiddles. Reminiscences flowed, joyfully and lovingly, of memorable evenings and memorable individuals, some of them departed.
Besides Robinson, other former regulars attending the Briar final sessions included Janice Frishkopf of Belmont, who had often dropped by in the early 2000s. She marveled at the session’s durability: “Now there’s a whole new generation of musicians who have come here.”
Bob Coleman, who paused occasionally while playing his bodhran to pass out red licorice to friends, acquaintances, and strangers, recalled Reynolds’s willingness to try out an idea Coleman and his friends pitched him 18 years ago. “There were six of us, just kind of getting to know the music, and we enjoyed going to the Briar. But we didn’t know all the same tunes. So we went to Larry and said, ‘Could we come in early, so we could go over the tunes together?’ He thought it was a great idea.” Thus was born the “slow” session, which came to be known in more recent years as the “early” session, starting up at 7 and concluding around 9, when the “late” session would begin.
“To me, there were actually three components to the Briar session,” said Sheridan. “You’d have the early session, and then the ‘regular’ session would start up. But around 10:30, the crowd would get smaller, and we’d do stuff that was a little different. We’d get ‘instrument-specific,’ focus on tunes that were more oriented to accordion, or fiddle or pipes. People would bring tunes from way back, tunes that everyone else didn’t mind sitting and listening to.”
On this night, as the early session went on and the room continued to fill, Carter, Robinson, and the other musicians played a set of reels including “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” Someone started a four-part jig, “The Lark in the Morning,” and others joined in; if you listened closely, you noticed that many of the musicians weren’t just playing the same notes, but were in agreement about how to play them: which ones to emphasize, which ones to vary, how to end a phrase so as to give the tune some lift.
This wasn’t happenstance, but an outgrowth of the “Tune of the Month” tutorial program early-session regulars participate in; sheet music and a recording of the tune in question are shared so the musicians can practice at home. As Sheridan explained, learning a set of common tunes together via the same source can create a bond among the sessioneers while helping them appreciate the subtle nuances in Irish traditional music – like the differences between the version of “Lark in the Morning” they learn and others they might encounter.
Witnessing the development of formerly novice musicians at the Briar has been satisfying for Sheridan, who recounted how one fiddler, once too shy to sit in with others at the early session, eventually became confident enough to lead a set of reels. “’We’ve created a monster,’” Sheridan recalled joking with another experienced musician as they witnessed the event.
The Briar’s reknown went well beyond Boston, or Massachusetts, or New England – or the US, for that matter. Session veterans reeled off names of notable Irish musicians who would stop by the Briar when their tour took the through town.
“A few of us started to make a list of everyone who had dropped in at the session over the years,” said Sheridan. “Trouble is, no matter how much time you spend doing that, and no matter how long the list gets, someone will say, ‘What about so-and-so?’ It just never ends.
“But you know who really makes the session? It’s those people who come every week, or every two weeks, or once a month – whenever they can. Their contribution means so much.”
An O’Carolan tune, “Fanny Power,” signaled the end of the early session, and shortly thereafter the late session – taking place in the pub’s main room – was in full swing, a circle of some two-dozen musicians playing a considerably up-tempo medley of reels.
Coleman, still doling out red licorice, said he was “horrified” at the prospect of the Briar shuttering. Taking note of the packed house, he added, “Well, people will definitely now know what they’ll be missing.”
Sheridan sounded an upbeat note about the session’s transition to The Burren, where the early session will be held in its Backroom starting at 6 p.m., the later session at 8:30 p.m. in the front. He expressed appreciation to Burren co-owner Tommy McCarthy for offering to take the session on, and to fiddler Helena Delaney, who has long hosted the pub’s Monday night session and will continue in that role.
“Tommy was very positive, and as for Helena, to have the opportunity to work with someone of that quality is something to look forward to,” he said. “People wondered about the logistics, but a lot of them have been saying ‘We’ll be there.’ So now it’s up to us, and I think we’ll make it work.”
Postscript: At the final Green Briar session on May 6, which was also packed, a photo of Larry Reynolds, fiddle in hand, was placed on one of the tables. The musicians ended the night with a reel in G, “The Galway Rambler,” one of Reynolds’ signature tunes.
A week later, the former Briar session – both early and late – had a splendid Burren debut, despite the chilly, damp weather, according to Sheridan: “three musicians deep” in the later session, and good spirits all around.
“If I do say so myself,” he said, “the music had great flow and lift.”