Not just a concert, but catharsis: The Burren Backroom, last Feb. 6. Sean Smith photo
Déjà vu: a rhyme
It is impossible to experience déjà vu
for the first time
the first time déjà vu happens
is the second
Déjà vu: a rhyme…
- Les Barker
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? It’s late December as I write this, and I am thinking back to 12 months ago, when we were nervously eyeing the advance of Omicron – and a return to the bad old days of 2020 and early 2021 – after an autumn that seemed to herald the arrival of some degree of normalcy.
For that matter, I could just as well be thinking back to 24 months ago, although then we hadn’t really experienced a similar degree of hopefulness vis-à-vis the slackening of pandemic conditions. Of course, two years ago, we were also more than a little distracted by continuing post-election 2020 fall-out, but that’s another story.
This time around, there appears to be no single named health threat like Omicron on the horizon, but rather a take-your-pick “tripledemic” of Covid, influenza, and/or RSV. Will January 2023 see a 2022esque reversal of fortune? Too early to know, perhaps.
Last January was certainly a gut punch for everyone, including those of us who are habitués of the local Irish/Celtic/folk music scene, given that the last quarter of 2021 saw a cautious return to live performances. One notable casualty of the Omicron surge was BCMFest (Boston Celtic Music Fest), which was all set to go back to an in-person format; but with infections on the rise about two weeks before the festival began, organizers (full disclosure: I’m on the committee) announced the event would once again take place virtually.
Here’s the thing, though: Yes, January was dark, cold, and generally miserable (as always, some might say), but it proved to be an outlier where live music was concerned in 2022. In February, area venues began to once again open their doors, including The Burren, which hosted a concert one could easily point to as a bellwether for the months that followed.
Appropriately enough, the February 6 matinee – part of the Burren’s Backroom series organized by Brian O’Donovan – was the official launch of the CD “All Jokes Aside,” recorded by three denizens of Boston’s Irish music scene, Seán Clohessy, Kathleen Conneely, and John Coyne. Given the high quality of Backroom shows, you could reasonably expect a fine time regardless of the act; the fact that it was a trio with such strong local ties made this all the more satisfying. Not surprisingly, then, the audience was packed with family, friends, and acquaintances of the three.
The performance Clohessy, Conneely, and Coyne gave that afternoon was notable not just for its technical brilliance, and the obvious musical acumen of the three. The respect, affection, and fellowship the three have for one another – born of long hours playing together in kitchens, living rooms, and any other available space – resonated with every note. And this was amplified by those in the audience who have likewise forged musical or personal relationships (or both) with them. Toward the end of the show, various special guests joined the trio until the stage was full from end to end. Folks, it was just one big love affair in that room. And the joy of being able to express that love in person, and as a community rather than simply as a crowd, was palpable.
“This wasn’t just a concert,” I wrote of the event in the Boston Irish spring print edition. “It was catharsis.”
Similar pleasures followed in subsequent weeks: Masterful uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan’s appearance at the Boston College Gaelic Roots series, during which he played a few duets with Boston’s own Joey Abarta; high-octane Scottish trio Talisk blowing minds at Club Passim in Harvard Square; “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” in the Somerville Theater; Cherish the Ladies at the City Winery; a Gaelic Roots homage to the groundbreaking musician/composer/arranger Seán Ó Riada; plus a host of treats in the Burren Backroom, including the Seamus Egan Project, Téada, The Murphy Beds and the Tannahill Weavers (the Burren’s own Tommy McCarthy and Louis Costello also held their famous St. Patrick’s Day marathon).
Larger-scale events took place during that stretch, too – Celtic Woman at Medford’s Chevalier Theatre, The High Kings at the Boch Center Schubert Theatre – but for many of us, the offerings of small-hall fare were especially welcome: the intimacy of a Club Passim or Backroom, and the opportunity to personally engage with performers has always been a salient, and satisfying, feature of folk and traditional music.
Spring, summer, fall – in-person performances continued their comeback, including bigger events like Summer BCMFest and the New Bedford Folk Festival. But the revival has not been complete. Numerous coffeehouses and other community listening room-type series in Greater Boston and Eastern Massachusetts are still shuttered, and the outlook for their future is mixed at best. This means fewer venues seem to be available for part-time, non-professional/touring performers who don’t depend on music for their livelihood, but thrive on being able to do an occasional gig here and there (full disclosure, again; I’m one of ’em). Maybe this will spark a proliferation of house concerts, with smaller audience capacities but perhaps not as much need for sound systems.
Still, there was another positive trend, live music-wise, during the past year: the return of weekly and other regularly occurring sessions at many familiar places in and around Boston, like The Burren, The Druid, the Brendan Behan, Emmets, O’Neill’s in Salem, the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton, and Bunratty’s in Reading – and a few new ones as well.
In April of 2020, when the pandemic was not even two months old, I spoke with a number of musicians who already felt a great sense of loss and disconnect at being unable to play sessions – a hole in their lives that Zooming or extra rehearsal time simply could not fill. “I can’t believe how much we took it for granted” was a common refrain.
“I didn’t realize fully until this crisis was quite how much it means to me to play music with other musicians — how much that chemistry, those interactions, both musical and interpersonal, mean to me,” said Larry Young.
Tara Lynch, meanwhile, pointed out that sessions, ceilis, and the like are enriching for everyone present, musicians and non-musicians alike. “What I realize more and more is how it impacts others: Those who come to events to listen or dance. How important it is to have that opportunity live and in person. A smartphone or YouTube video can be helpful, but they can’t replace physical closeness.”
As someone whose session participation rate had cratered (for various reasons) even before the pandemic, I can reaffirm after several months of re-entry that this particular live music experience is definitely all it’s cracked up to be, and more.
There’s the sense of anticipation beforehand, much like any social situation: Who’s going to be there this week? I hope that fiddler who came last month will be back. Wonder if I can get [insert name here] to play that reel for me. And once you’re all gathered in that place, squeezed around a table – hopefully there’s room for you and your instrument – and someone starts a tune, a tune you know (or know well enough), you’re suddenly part of this small, temporary, but dynamic community that is creating both art and fellowship. The feeling is indescribable.
Is it always like that? Not necessarily. Are there sessions in which something’s just not right, you don’t feel the vibe, maybe someone’s on the surly side? Sure. But there’s always the next time, if you give it a chance, or you try another one – in Boston, we’re very fortunate to be able to do that.
The Boston area has long been a place with a fairly consistent influx of new residents, and if any of them are Celtic musicians, chances are pretty good you’ll make their acquaintance at a session. I can think of about a dozen people I’ve met at the Burren, Druid, or Emmets since last spring who have been in the area for only two, perhaps three years, and some far less than that. Or they’ve been local for a long time but are new to the music. Fresh faces, fresh energy.
Want another barometer of live music’s return? Dublin native Colm O’Brien is easily one of the Boston area’s most active, and resolute, pub singers: As the pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, he told me that neither Covid “nor any other calamity visited on us [could] diminish my resolve to carry on the work I do. If anything, it has reinforced my belief that music is the great healer and is actually far more important in times of great stress.”
O’Brien hung in there, doing performances via social media until pubs eventually reopened and began offering live entertainment again. And so, as has been his custom for many years, O’Brien continues to faithfully pass along via Facebook the list of his upcoming appearances (“Wednesday, Durty Nelly’s, Boston, 8:30; Friday, The Irish Cottage, Methuen, 6:00; Saturday, The Cottage Bar, Weymouth, 8:00…”), usually signing off with “Sin a bhfuil go fóill a dhaoine uaisle” – “That’s it for now, ladies and gentlemen.”
So, for 2023, here’s hoping that the sun will rise and set; fiddles, accordions, and banjos will continue to ring out in pubs and taverns across Eastern Massachusetts (and beyond); sean-nos and ballad singers will quicken pulses in small rooms and large theaters; dancers will go through their paces on stages, or any decent wooden floor; and Colm O’Brien will keep posting his gig schedule.
That’s it for now, ladies and gentlemen.