"Life’s Too Short Not To Play Music"

Irish Session @ The Celtic Knot 2008-01-22

Folk music isn’t just about some hot hippie chick on a coffee shop stage somewhere singing about candy and flowers and incompetently strumming a guitar.* Sort of like “country”, or “punk” or “I’ll call you”, “folk” means a lot of different things to different people. To me, folk music is about… well, folks. A bunch of folks getting together to play music for some reason other than to perform it.

You may be asking: what’s the point? It’s 2008, and this is Chicago. Am I supposed to go watch this stuff? Do these guys care if I watch it? Why not just stay home and do this instead of making a ruckus at <insert your favorite bar here>? And inevitably: How do I join in? Maybe that last one’s just me…

I’ll be going around and, as long as I can get away with it, talking to the guys and gals that organize this stuff, play it and listen to it. First is Gus Friedlander, a friend of mine who runs the Irish session every Tuesday night at the Celtic Knot pub in Evanston. Gus is a really cool guy who’s been playing music of all kinds for many years around Chicago. He’s got many a great story about many a Chicago musician, past and present, that I can’t print here. But stop by the session some Tuesday, I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you a few. Read on to see what he and some other guys at the Celtic Knot have to say about the session, and some of the questions above.

An embarrassing note before we start: you’ll have to forgive me for starting the recorder in the middle of Gus’s answer to the first question. I may be a software engineer by day, but a apparently a voice recorder still confuses the crap out of me. Second of all, in the interview, Lee is another guy at the session who played flute, whistle and fiddle at different times during the night.

On The Session

Dan: How did you start this session?

Gus: …I came to talk to Patrick Breslin [at the Celtic Knot], who was sort of the point man with the music, and told him that I’ve been playing Irish music, and had actually run the sessions at the Hidden Shamrock. And then we had a thing at the Edgewater for a while.

So anyway, I think Patrick.. Patrick has lived in this country for basically most all of his adult life, and he understands–some of these Irish guys do not–he understands that this is a melting pot. His wife is American, nearly all the patrons of this place are Americans. You know, there’s some Irish people and some English people who find their way here, but, you know–

Lee: There’s some Turkish people too

Gus: That’s right!

Lee: I found out when I played a Turkish tune.

Dan: Here in the bar?

Lee: Yeah, we were playing up there [Lee points to the window], and this group of foreign students standing against this bar here started applauding, it was so funny [laughs]! I said, oh, you must be Turkish!

Gus: Anyway, Patrick likes to be able to tell people that the session is run by a guy named Friedlander; you know, the Irish session [laughs].

And I, in turn, I appreciate that, because there’s a lot of people, you know, these pub owners that really are not into that. And so, I’ve had my adventures–I think we all have–of being snapped at, or even being chased away from sessions run either by Irish people or by Irish American people.

Dan: Why? Because you’re not traditional enough?

Gus: Well, yeah. I don’t mind playing a bluegrass tune or a swing tune; it’s no big deal. Or if someone wants to play or sing an original song, that’s totally fine as long as it doesn’t just sort of turn into a jam session where nobody knows what’s going on.

Now, there is something to be said for the.. the straight traditional art of Irish music–just Irish music. There are some extremely fine players in town: the other session, at Nevins, which is run by John Williams; John is a world-class accordion player.

Dan: What’s the best way to get into it? Say for someone like me, that already plays a different kind of music?

Gus: Exactly the same way that you get into bluegrass; you have to listen to the music. The thing to understand about Celtic music is that this is a tradition that is deeper, and richer than bluegrass, or Anglo-American folk music, and there’s only one reason for that; and that is that it’s older.

Irish Session @ The Celtic Knot 2008-01-22 (These are different tunes, I swear)

On The Folk Music Scene in Chicago

Gus: The thing about the folk music scene is that–it’s like you say, there is a folk music scene, there’s folk music all over, but it’s played by people who mostly play for each other. There was a little bit of a record industry, mostly back in the vinyl days. Now, the best folk musicians in Chicago, like Kat Eggleston–and Kat has recorded fairly prolifically, half a dozen albums or something, and she plays on other people’s records too–can hardly be bothered to even work with record stores or distributors or anything. They’re on little tiny labels, some of the very best ones, but mainly they just sell it off the stand; it’s tiny. And even that is going to change with websites and downloads, mp3s…

Dan: What’s your role here on Tuesday? What’s the point of the session?

Gus: Well, my feeling about all musical performance is that if the musicians are having a good time and entertaining one another and are not at odds in any way, but trying to work collegially, however imperfectly, then the audience will warm up to it; those people who care to come to listen. The truth is, most of the patrons who come here probably are not going to listen very intently, it’s just a little nice amenity.

What I appreciate about the people that run this… all these people are passionate about music. They understand the importance in a casual way, in an informal way, of just the presence of live music, it almost doesn’t matter what it is or who it is, as long as it’s of a certain quality.

Dan: And that’s almost like, when I went to Ireland, that’s what impressed me, just going into a bar and having the session going on in the corner…

Gus: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s just the aura of it. And that is a totally different thing from going to a show, paying a cover, buying a ticket, sitting down, watching the band. The people that appreciate this stuff, traditional– especially instrumental music, are the players. How many Irish trad players come in and listen to us who aren’t playing? Nobody. Then there’s the occasional Charles Smith [Charles, who is also sitting at the table, laughs], seriously, who’s actually a serious music fan. You come to listen… How many other people do you see that come and listen to the music specifically? Maybe a few, maybe a few. But 85%, 90% of the people in here did not come in for it. Everyone’s aware of it, nobody minds it.

That’s it. If you want to hear some great stories, stop by the session on Tuesday. If you want to check out the music, stop by. If you want to play, definitely stop by. As Gus said at the end of the night, “life’s too short not to play music.”

* To all such hippie chicks that read this and are looking for a dobro player for musical and/or other kinds of accompaniment: I’m just kidding; call me.

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