The last Sunday of the month there is a Celtic Music Jam Session at the Black Market Bar and Grill at 5 Points in Birmingham, AL. Its a great way to expose yourself free-of-charge to popular Irish tunes played on flute, penny whistle, and fiddle, accompanied by instruments like guitar, a Celtic drum called a bodhran, or in my case, a Celtic mandolin. But there is room to be more than an audience member. If you have played Irish music on one of the listed instruments or have a desire to learn and are fairly proficient at your instrument, you can join the circle and experience the jam first hand.
There is a distinct difference between a bluegrass or old time music jam and a Celtic jam. For one, in a typical bluegrass jam there will be a certain song chosen, for instance, Cluck Old Hen. Typically, a mandolin, guitar, or banjo player will lead off the tune while other instruments chop chords, strum, or play background riffs in harmony. There may be a singer that sings the words if the song has lyrics. Then you go around the circle and different musicians take turns putting their own spin on the melody or performing a solo variation of the main theme. But in a Celtic jam, a fiddle tune is chosen known by most or all of the musicians, and all instruments with the exception of bodhran, and perhaps guitar or some other back-up instrument, play the melody in unison. Usually, several tunes are chosen for a set and strung together. One melody will be repeated multiple times, then one player will break off into the next chosen melody, followed in suit by the others, and so on, till the set of songs have been played. When choosing melodies, certain types fit well for any given set. In Irish music, there are varied types of melodies: reels (4/4), hornpipes (4/4 with swung 8th notes), waltzes (3/4), polkas, jigs (6/8), slip jigs (9/8), or strathspeys (barndance tunes). So the group may choose several hornpipes, or a couple of jigs and a slip jig, or a set of reels. That way the tunes match as far as timing goes and are easily slipped into and out of during the course of the set.
Last month was my second visit as a participant of the jam, and not having an extensive background repertoire of fiddle tunes, I was somewhat shy, but not nearly as nervous as my first visit last year. My first time I worked with the guitarist Dan Vogt (of Vulcan Eejits!) and had tried strumming guitar to begin with but Dan plays in a DADGAD tuning and so it was hard for me to follow his chords visually. Rather than compete with his varied harmonies, I switched to strumming mandolin to add some variety. If you go this route, another thing you should know is that Irish tunes don’t follow a typical I-IV-V chord progression that bluegrass and old time tunes do. The tunes are modal and you may start in the key of D, but within that song you may play a D chord, G, C, Bm, or Em chord, but there is no strong I-V cadence (a D-A). It is challenging to know what to play if you don’t have a strong ear or experience with Celtic music. Some study on Celtic harmony would do you good if you have a goal to sit in on a session as a rhythm player. But I brought my handful of tunes and would play a beginning lick when we were discussing tunes to play, and my tunes were used several times, which was enjoyable, yet challenging to keep them at the speed the group is accustomed to. But they graciously held back knowing I was a “newbie.”
I chatted with a few of the regulars, curious as to whether or not they had been raised on Celtic music or discovered it later in life. Jil Chambless of Henri’s Notions (lead singer and flutist), Vulcan Eejits!, and the Vogt Family Contraband told me that Celtic tunes were not passed down to her as part of her heritage. She had a desire to learn that style of music on her flute as an adult, and became part of the band Henri’s Notions, a Celtic band that has played in many venues and Celtic festivals across the South and East Coast. She has built up a repertoire over many years now and I have to say, her flute is a beautiful complement to the fiddles echoing the melody, or sometimes slipping into a harmony part.
One of the fiddlers and an original member of the three year old jam is Kevin Nicholson who, like Jil Chambless, is involved in more than one band including Delicate Cutters, Jasper Coal, and Vulcan Eejits!. His father was a banjo player, but as a child of six Kevin was exposed to Celtic music around the time that he started learning the fiddle, and fell in love with Irish fiddle tunes and so has had a lifetime of learning. Another founding member of the group is Mickey Hicks, who picked up the bodhran as an adult. He had done a lot of research about various types and had run across Seamus O’Kane, a leading bodhran maker who resides in Ireland. His son Dairmaid O’Kane had started making bodhrans and Mickey was fortunate to obtain one of his creations online, and then studied the drumming style. A good free instructional site is http://bodhranexpert.com if you are interested in learning this instrument.
If you have no greater desire than to spend an afternoon or evening listening to some fine Irish music, or if you would like to play, Celtic sessions can be found in most larger cities across the US through an internet search. And if you are in the Birmingham, Alabama area, you are cordially invited to attend the Birmingham Celtic Music Session.
Here is a live session I recorded from the jam last month: