Unbeknownst to most people, Irish “sessions” are everywhere in New York, even if the players might seem loath to admit it. I recently watched a guy question the suddenly shy musicians over at Brass Monkey, a bar in the meatpacking district. “Are you a band?” Heads shook. “Is this your regular gig?” The fiddler shrugged. “Well,” the patron said, retreating, “you sound great!”
“Session” is the English for the Irish seisiún, and in New York, session is the term for a bunch of musicians who meet regularly in a circle, or face-to-face around a table, in bars friendly to the cause, to play jigs, reels, hornpipes, and the occasional waltz. Irish sessions should not be confused with improvised jam sessions; session tunes are played in unison, pretty much note for note. Then again, the session on Monday evening at the Landmark Tavern, in Hell’s Kitchen, is not the same as Tuesday night’s session at Swift Hibernian Lounge, in the East Village. Different styles, different players, different reservoir of tunes.
On any given week in New York, there could be a half-dozen-odd sessions at places like O’Neill’s in midtown (Saturday and Sunday nights), 11th Street Bar in the East Village (Sunday nights), or Brass Monkey (Sunday afternoons). Some have only two or three people playing, though good players attract good players. Once, at Brass Monkey, I saw three fiddles, two flutes, a button accordion, a banjo, and a harp stuffed into a corner— a kitchen symphony.
A session is the opposite of a concert: It’s an interstitial, spotlight-free event. All that’s needed is a bar (with the TV muted) and regulars content to just enjoy the tunes, as opposed to nonregulars who might request something by the Rolling Stones or, more tragically, “Danny Boy.” Sessions need a guy who knows how to keep things moving, like Eamon O’Leary, a songwriter, singer, and banjo player who, with Christopher Layer, is often in charge of the Tuesday session at Swift’s. And if you follow a session regularly, you will notice rare birds land and sing. If you couldn’t get into Sam Amidon’s sold-out shows at the Kitchen last month, you might have seen him fiddling at Swift’s. If you missed Dana Lyn’s band Bach Reformed on WNYC’s “New Sounds,” then you might have heard her at Lillie’s (Flatiron district, Saturday afternoons).
Yes, there are not-so-great sessions. They can sometimes sound stiff. But the classic old tunes—“The Flax in Bloom,” say, or “Give Us a Drink of Water”—require listeners as well as musicians, just as a note requires the wood of a fiddle to resonate. So even on the average day, in a decent place, with some good players, you will likely hear a tune that sounds as if it had been circling around in time, waiting to land, everyone within earshot the better for its brief visit.