July 2, 2020
Nestled in the northeast corner of Jamaica Plain, right near the Angell Animal Medical Center, the Brendan Behan Pub prides itself as a “cozy gathering place.” Its website prominently displays a quote from the namesake Irish author and legendary raconteur identifying the necessities of life as “something to eat, something to drink, and somebody to love you.”
Among the many who love “the Behan” is a confederation of local musicians who for years have squeezed into its confines for a late afternoon/early evening Irish session every Saturday. While over time the cast has changed, as some participants have moved away or onto other things, a core group has kept the faith, and the music, going, such that the Behan is regarded as one of the jewels in Boston’s Irish session crown.
So when the pub closed down in late March as the pandemic surged, Behan regulars Cara Frankowicz, Laura Feddersen, Nathan Gourley ,and Alan Murray decided to take the session online. Since then, every Saturday from 5-7 p.m. – approximately the same time footprint as the in-person version – the quartet has livestreamed via Facebook from the house they share, located about a mile from the pub.
For the housemates, what began as a spur-of-the-moment, let’s-see-what-happens venture has been every bit as enjoyable as they’d hoped, and somewhat more popular than they expected. The virtual sessions have attracted viewers from as far away as France and Germany, as well as from across the US. They also has served to affirm the musicians’ bond with a place that means so much to them, an affection reciprocated by the pub’s management and staff.
Recently, the four helped marshal some support for the Behan when, as part of their May 30 session, they invited viewers to contribute to a relief fund set up for Behan employees, and raised $250.
“We didn’t plan anything,” Frankowicz says. “There were other musicians on Facebook holding virtual sessions, so that helped give us the idea. We just wanted to keep playing, and since we all live in the same house and had to stay at home, we thought ‘Why not?’”
Their initial belief that doing the livestream wouldn’t be any more difficult “than pressing a couple of buttons” didn’t exactly pan out, she acknowledges, but once some audio and video issues were addressed “it has really been fine, and lots of fun.”
Adds Feddersen, “I don’t think we imagined that so many other people would get out of it what we did – something that you could look forward to happening every week, at a time when there is so much uncertainty.”
The “Virtual Behan Session” is as informal and casual as its name implies. For two hours, the four play sets of jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and other tunes from the Irish tradition on fiddles, tenor banjo, guitar, and bouzouki. There’s no pre-set running order or arrangements: Someone will suggest these jigs, or those reels, or just start playing; musicians who play with each other so regularly over time often come to know one another’s repertoires, and can adjust on the fly – or just sit out until a tune they know comes along.
In between playing, the four relax and chat and – since they’re on Facebook – check to see which friends and acquaintances are watching, and if they have any questions or requests.
“Is that a Josie McDermott tune?” asked one viewer during a recent livestream.
Another inquired, “You wouldn't by any chance know a Dinny McLaughlin tune called ‘On His Toes,’ would you?”
For those who miss it or want to watch again, a video of each session stays up for a week (they’re shared on the Brendan Behan Pub Facebook group) until the next livestream.
“It’s not a performance, and we’re not trying to be perfect,” says Murray. “We just forget there’s a camera pointed at us and act naturally. It’s really as if were playing at the pub, with the same kind of interaction: the conversations and the joking around, and that special chemistry when you’re playing music together. And we have some friends lovingly heckling us – except that they’re doing it on social media, rather than in person.”
Sure enough, their June 6 livestream prompted some good-natured wisecracks:
“Don’t forget the mucky hornpipes!”
“Hope the hangovers are virtual, too.”
“Am I the only one waiting for Cara to get up and dance?”
But there are plenty of supportive comments as well: “You guys and other online sessions have inspired me to pick up my old tin whistle again,” wrote one viewer, “to the consternation of my neighbors!”
As Murray explains, their friends also “defended our honor” when some viewers – not realizing that the four live together – thought the musicians might be flouting social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines. In response, the sessioneers began displaying a home-made sign, “We Are Roommates,” during the livestream to allay any such concerns. This tactic may have created another misunderstanding, notes Frankowicz.
“Someone from France posted, ‘I love that We Are Roommates band,’” she says. “That was really nice to see – although we don’t consider ourselves a performance band; we just like playing together.”
Of course, the Virtual Behan Session is no substitute for the real thing, say the housemates, who appreciate the pub’s longstanding commitment to hosting the event.
“The staff really love the session and are behind it 100 percent. It means a lot when the music is so welcomed,” says Frankowicz. “That’s why we asked for donations to the relief fund – we want to support them as much as they support us.”
For Behan management and staff, the gesture was emblematic of the connection the pub has forged with the session musicians over the years.
“In Boston, Irish heritage is very strong, and that’s something important to the Behan,” says manager Michelle Flynn. “The musicians do a fantastic job of representing that. It’s not only just that people like the music; these guys have a true following. It’s a rare thing these days.
“Their support for the relief fund was all their idea, and it was such a kind thing to do. It just shows the kind of relationship we have. We can’t wait to get them back in here – hopefully, that won’t be too long.”
Mike Condon has tended bar at the Behan on weekends for three years, but has been a regular for the better part of two decades. A Cork native, he knows a thing or two about Irish pubs, and as far as he’s concerned, the Saturday session goes a long way toward making the Behan an Irish pub.
“It definitely brings out the authenticity of an Irish pub,” he says. “What’s amazing is that the musicians are almost all Americans – it just goes to show how popular Irish music has become. And the quality of the music, and the atmosphere it creates, is excellent. For some customers, the session is the highlight of their week.”
The Saturday following the fundraiser for the Behan relief fund, Condon showed his gratitude by tending bar for the virtual session, serving up sangria he made through the window of the housemates’ kitchen, thus observing social distancing protocols.
“Definitely want to do it again,” he said. “That was very thoughtful of them, helping out the Behan like that.”
The housemates know it may be a while before the Behan can host sessions again, and even when it does, at the outset there are apt to be limits on how many musicians can participate. As Frankowicz observes, the pandemic will lead to changes “in how we interact with one another in many aspects of our lives.” For now, they plan to keep the virtual session going (after recently taking a two-week hiatus), although they are contemplating a move to YouTube.
But however much pleasure they’ve derived from playing music while being quarantined together, Gourley and his roommates long for those Saturdays in the Behan.
“You miss seeing the friends who come by, whether to play or listen – might be somebody you haven’t seen in a while,” he says. “That’s the joy of possibilities. Of course, you don’t always realize just how much it means to you until it’s gone.”
NOTE: Laura Feddersen and some of her musical friends will be among the performers at this year’s Summer BCMFest, which will be held in virtual format on July 5 via passim.org/streams.