To Scotland, I was
driving all through the night as usual, after gigs, arriving at 6 or 7
am to sleep next morning, knocking back hot whiskies to stave off a cold.
The Shetland festival was full of sleepless fun, I was booked as a compere
for many shows, only getting to sing 6 of my songs officially on stage.
I found myself playing some harmonica on microphone, as a compere, playing
for time, while the stage was being cleared. It felt as if the stage had
become my living room and I was tidying it up getting it ready and making
the performers comfortable, all that was missing was a sofa and arm chairs
for the musicians to sit and relax in. Working Up all hours playing sessions
to see the sun rise three times in a row, ending up at the Thula harbour
pub for whisky and ginger to soothe my sore throat. Playing there with
fiddlers, piper, box player etc till eleven am! Then eating breakfast
at the fisherman's cafe. I hardly saw my lodging hosts, except once when
I was coming back in the morning for a shower and they were leaving for
After the Shetlands and during Aberdeen's Arts Festival, on a farm at
Cairnwell 30 minutes South from Aberdeen, a party was thrown by friends,
Jonathan and Annie who are expecting a baby, big fire, music sessions
all night, dancing, tunes, songs. It was fun but exhausting. Catching
up with old mates from Shiftwork theatre group.
Learned from friend Mo Burkes' children in her families house in Shetland.
Whaurs du fae. = where are you from.
Spricklin wi blydeness= frolicking happily
Hoorn aa fine= very good.
Lipperous Pushon= Nasty person.
Blyde tae see de= Happy to see you.
Klaa de pilly boy= Scratch your penis boy.
peerie pishic= small shit
humin= half light,
Stowin dunt= bad mood
To describe any session you have to describe the instruments that are
being played, the characters playing them, the characters listening, barman,
lock out, lock in. Where it is happening. The Craic. The time of day or
night or morning. Who is the Host? It might be a pub owner, house owner,
wedding, Christening, there could be little kids running around, dancing.
Wanting to try blowing my Trombone. The resident drunk might have a funny
song to sing off their chest.
Whether drinks are still being served or not might not seem to matter,
but if a musician is blowing all night till the sun rises, lubricant is
necessary for both the dry throat, thirst and for the brain, like breathing.
How Smoky are the bars, how much daylight is streaming through the window,
or if it is dark, and cavernous, I feel that most sessions are better
un- amplified, this way it is more equal, egalitarian, so any one can
join in and be heard, not need a microphone.
(Though I have often been passed a spare mike for my harp to be heard
over bass and drums at a more formal electric jam)
This is why, I believe, Trombone works, I can wander and be heard. I might
arrive with my harps or trombone, not a traditional instrument, but one
that can add bass or body to a set of tunes where there is not normally
any bass instrument. I like to add the body or bottom earth to a tune,
or perhaps a drone, then pumping some kind of rhythm, swinging and syncopating
with the melody, pushing and pulling the accents. Trombone seems to work
with the pipes and accordion well, as these have a full sound already.
I have learned to play quietly behind singers and fiddles, when something
is played so delicately, I prefer to listen than play, as I will feel
clumsy and not airy enough to accompany a quiet soloist.
Some quiet instruments can be drowned out. It is often up to the sensitivity
of the other players to listen to each other and try to play at the level
of the quietest instrument. Of course, this is often difficult when we
get carried away by a steaming set of tunes, or there are many musicians
playing, there could be a whole other party and dancing going on around
that session, folks socializing and partying, not here just for "our"
Sometimes you can have two sessions in the same room, this might normally
happen at a festival, one might be more precious or more intimate than
the other. One might have begun just by two people, maybe two mandolin
players, showing each other a tune and then another and then....other
players might timidly join in and it builds up, no one is an intruder,
but some kind of courtesy, decorum or unspoken respect will be apparent.
The secret, as I see it, is basically whoever plays with anyone must be
there to listen too, like conversation. There is no competition to be
louder or to play faster than anyone else. It should be a sharing of tunes
between people. Perhaps someone will want to introduce a tune that no
one else knows, then everyone will listen to the way it progresses, chordally,
harmonically or rhythmically they might search their own instrument and
find a way to play along with that "New" tune. The person who
introduced the tune will invariably shout out the chords or the key changes
as they are playing, this is their invitation to the others. I don't believe
that there are such things as mistakes at a session. Of course we are
all intimidated by strange rhythms, but I see it as a meeting point, a
learning situation, some of us are more reckless or confident than others
so we "have a go" We aren't on some high stage spoiling someone's
big concert. Old and young alike are welcomed. Strangers passing through
will always bring a new tune to offer and share. I have seen people worried
or curious when I have arrived at an acoustic session and started to take
out my trombone and put it together. I have sat with it in my hands, listening,
waiting for a moment, cautious and timid, because it is capable of being
a loud instrument. Also I never know how I will approach a tune each time.
I might play a drone, or a harmony drone, and then play off beat polka
rhythms, or I might syncopate and push the swing tempo with riffs to give
other accents that might make the tune swing more than it was. I don't
know myself, as the trombone is new to me, I am still discovering these
tunes with the trombone in mind and I never practice. My practice is in
Public! When I first started bringing it to sessions, I was always very
self conscious, and still am, because I knew that I would be making many
mistakes and everyone would hear them! I have learned to play quietly
now! I remember in Cornwall at Peranporth Celtic Fest, I happened to be
there, by chance, I was joining in on the Bone, searching and sometimes
failing. Someone listening, came up and asked me to stop playing, 'that
it wasn't even a folk instrument'. This person was not playing themselves,
did not play, I felt bad, but defiant, I asked the musicians I was playing
with if they minded me playing with them, they all said they didn't mind
and to ignore the rude snobby persons' purist jibes and encouraged me
to carry on. They enjoyed it.
(I remember in Dublin, with US banjo player Molly Mcnally Burke, going
along early to Hughes Bar to initiate a session, we were the first musicians
there, just the two of us at first, playing Trombone and banjo together
harps etc. Then other musicians showed up and joined our space we had
created in the corner of the bar, So, in effect, any musician who came
along to play then, 'joined' us, we didn't join them, it was 'our' session
in a way we were the host musicians. Rather than turning up to a session
fully under way, fiddles, banjoes steaming away and them having to make
room for me and my bone. I felt much more relaxed, of course. I also met
each person as they showed up and said "Hi" to each individual.
Because of this "claimers/squatters rights"/sociological/psychological"
difference I was not intimidated and so played the trombone better than
I had done before on the Irish tunes that were played that long night.)
Sometimes, as I have witnessed, there might be a piano with guitar and
harmonica or trombone or singer playing along as quiet as that piano.
But then a bunch of people hitting African Djembe drums might join in
playing loudly, till you can no longer hear the Piano or singer. Then
other percussionists might then follow joining in, so it becomes even
louder. Now, it is possible to leave that session and go and play somewhere
else together. But it is difficult to walk away and find a quiet, more
intimate place to play, with a piano!
Basically you have to tell the Drummers to play quieter, to listen more,
or to "Fuck off and play somewhere else."!
In the Shetlands, people were very accommodating, and open, we were all
steaming with tunes driven by musicians staying awake, tired but generating
andrenalyn to keep going till the sun rose, quenching thirsts with beer,
and stoking our sizzling brains with the smoking of 'laughing cabbage'.
The playing becomes hypnotic, musicians with tunes to lift each other
up and carry, then as each instrument joins in, the force becomes so driven
that the tunes take on a life of their own and we stir each other to other
heights. Flying together, Goosebumps, hair standing, hearts speeding with
pulses drumming, feet tapping and we are transformed somehow, the room
is transformed, filled, with some fires raging together as one, fanned
and blown by the winds of excitement.
The craic, fully alive, this is life, and death is kept away, playing
these tunes together somehow keeps our souls immortal, and it is this
realization, that we are breathing life together and celebrating this
moment, and also other moments, maybe this gives us a feeling of immortality
and timelessness. That we are alive forever in that tune.
When we part at 6am in the morning, those moments will still be alive
inside us, sparks and flashes, love and inspiration for life will be taken
and carried by each of us to wherever we will go, we refuel ourselves
by playing and dancing till we drop! There is love here, love of life,
pushing death and feelings of loneliness away for a moment, when you are
completely lost and swept up by the tunes, taken on a journey by the songs,
moved and carried by a slow air. A slow air as slow as a feather falling.
to Road Diaries