Novices keep it reel

At the Green Briar pub, where the music is nice and slow

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 23, 2007

The sound welled up slow, with a bit of a wobble. A banjo twanged a half-note ahead, a fiddle a half-note behind. A tin whistle or two meandered off melody, as a bodhran missed a beat.

No matter. Like newlyweds who share a smile as they shuffle stiffly through their first dance, the novice musicians savored the Irish session more for its spirit than its style. Soon, the traditional reel surged from its coltish first steps to a sprightly if uneasy tempo, filling the cozy pub with a warm, restorative refrain.

The earnest, untrained sound came courtesy of the weekly "slow session" at The Green Briar, a Brighton pub that hosts one of the most popular and renowned sessions for novice practitioners of Irish music. Founded seven years ago, the Monday night session now stands at the height of its popularity, easily the city's largest session and a signpost of the Boston-area Irish music scene, if a somewhat knotted and creaky one.

"The Briar seems to be the place, you know," said Seamus Connolly, a master fiddler and director of the Boston College Irish Studies music, song, and dance program. "It's famous for it, for all the people who have a hard time keeping up with the hotshots."

For fans of traditional Irish music, the many sessions (seisiuns in Gaelic) that shimmer and dance through dozens of Boston-area pubs are an uplifting delight.

Yet for all but the most talented fiddlers and whistlers, the musical skill that abounds in the most Irish of US cities is daunting, making most sessions a forbiddingly exclusive club. Sessions, scheduled but informal instrumental sets sometimes accompanied by singing and dancing, are easily found. But slow sessions are rare, with only a handful of well-established weekly gatherings in the country.

At the Briar, aspiring strummers and whistlers have a place to learn their craft in a more welcoming atmosphere at a more manageable pace, with musicians of similar skill. Tunes are announced beforehand and played at roughly three-quarters speed. Some musicians only play the tunes they know best, then listen to learn by ear. Some come in late and pause in the middle, to catch their breath or take a drink. No one glares at missteps, and some players thumb through sheet music, a mortal sin in a regular session.

"That would be very much frowned upon," said Frank Horrigan, a 74-year-old accordion player from Bedford who leads the Briar session. "And [if] you're not playing up to scratch, they'll squash you. Here, we keep things nice and relaxed."

While some purists might demur at the informality, Briar musicians, who range from 10-year-old Kieran Keegan on the tin whistle to 88-year-old John Hennessey on the bones (though Hennessey prefers castanets, for its ring of sophistication) say it is central to the slow session's convivial culture. The music may not be as polished, but it is pure. What players lack in ability, they make up for in sincerity, a genuine love of music that transcends their talent.

"I've been whacking away at this Irish thing for many, many years," Hennessey said between sips of a martini before the session. "I'm just trying to play well enough so I don't get thrown out."

That humble, self-effacing tone runs through the slow session and creates an accepting, close-knit fellowship, musicians said. Players arrive to hearty greetings, swap music and stories, and take time between reels to take it all in. Slower is a refreshing change of pace, many say. You wouldn't gulp a Guinness, after all.

"Everything is so fast nowadays, in people's jobs and their lives," said John Kearney, executive director of CCE Boston Music School, which teaches Irish traditional music. "This is an antidote to all that."

Bill Firla was a student at a Gaelic music summer school at Boston College when the idea for a slow session struck him. He soon realized there was enormous pent-up demand among novice musicians for a place to play in public and a chance to play with others.

"They had nowhere to go," he said.

Word spread, and before long the slow session became a staple of the Irish music scene. There's not much of a crowd, just a few visitors enjoying a pint at day's end, and applause is sparse, usually limited to a satisfied whoop from the musicians themselves.

"Everybody who hits Boston knows about this session," said Larry Reynolds, a well-known fiddler from Waltham via the west of Ireland who for nearly two decades has run the Briar's fast session, which follows its slower counterpart on Monday nights.

Aisling Keating, 41, of Groton, by way of Dublin, grew up playing the tin whistle, but over time let it lapse. But the pull never left, and eventually she returned to the pubs, whistle in hand. That's usually where it stayed.

When she found the Briar, other musicians introduced themselves, and Reynolds spotted her in the crowd and gave her a drink ticket, a voucher for one pint on the house that is generously distributed to session attendees. She sang "Down by the Sally Gardens," and felt that she belonged.

"So open and friendly," she recalled. "It's a home away from home for me."

Inspired, Keating started a slow session of her own in Groton that draws about 20 people.

At the Briar, many musicians said the slow session is a welcome diversion from practicing at home (or at red lights, as some whistlers sheepishly admit). And playing with better musicians helps them rise to their level. So while every chord change isn't seamless and some songs end with a murmur rather than a flourish, the sound at times creeps ever closer to that of a fast session. Listening on one recent night as he polished off a half-pint of Guinness, Reynolds smiled.

"That's the great thing about music; it's for everybody," he said. "They enjoy it just as much as the best players. They play from the heart, and it warms their hearts just the same."

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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