Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Long Weekend in Buffalo, NY

It's St. Patrick's Day and I'm in Buffalo, New York (not for much longer, though...catching a train east at midnight). It feels like it's been St. Patricks Day since Saturday, though. There's a big Irish-American population here, and they have a big annual parade on the nearest Sunday (that was a couple of days ago). On the Saturday, I learned from a local arts paper that there are weekly Irish folk sessions on Saturday afternoons at Nietzche's, one of the city's best loved live music venues. So I took my saz along, and was a bit dismayed to find the place completely packed out. Just getting to the bar to get a pint of Guinness (cheap, and properly dispensed, I'm glad to say) was a major mission.

Nietzche's, Buffalo
Nietzche's, Buffalo

A group of musicians were clustered round a table, knocking out familiar reels and songs, but to hear anything at all, I had to stand right next to them. There didn't seem any room to squeeze in (or much point, with that kind of background volume), but before long, a friendly someone spotted that I had an instrument and made a space for me. The experience was like some I've had in crowded pubs in Ireland, where the best that can be done with a saz is to play chords as loudly as possible, so that it almost becomes a percussion instrument. Even then, I could hardly hear myself. But it was good to be welcomed, and to hear old favourites like "The Leaving of Liverpool" and "Sally Gardens". A nice mix of instruments too - fiddles, banjos, mandolins, bhodran, a harp, a bouzouki...Some of the faces looked distinctly Irish, too. I was asked if I wanted to start something, so suggested "Julia Delaney", which was known to a banjo player who looked remarkably like a younger version of Will, the 'kung fu banjo' player who I remember from Cool Mountain in West Cork. I strummed along furiously.

The most remarkable event of the afternoon was when a huge, bald black guy (who looked like one of those American football players whose role it is to block the other team) in a Guinness T-shirt got up and approached the group. Someone whispered something about him wanting to sing an aire, and shhh'd the bar until a relative quiet was established. Rather than singing, though, he recited, in what sounded to me like perfectly pronounced Irish Gaelic, Padraig Pearse's "Mise Eire":

"Mise Eire
Sine me na an Chailleach Bheara
Mor no ghloir
Me do rug Cuchulain croga
Mo mo nair
Mo chlann fein do dhiol a mathair
Mise Eire
Uaigni me na an Chailleach Bheara

Everyone was stunned, as he returned to his table, with a huge smile. "What does it mean?" shouted out someone, so he came back and gave us the translation:

"I am Ireland
Older than the Hag of Beara.
Great my pride,
I gave birth to brave Cuchulain.
Great my shame,
My own children killed their mother.
I am Ireland,
Lonelier than the Hag of Beara.

I didn't know what the Hag of Beara was, but with the wonders of Google, I found out that it's a rock on the coast of the Beara peninsula. In fact, it's directly across the water from Sneem, so my gaze must have fallen on it many a time.

Hag of Beara
The Hag of Beara - photo by Billy Fear

Here and here are some things I recorded with Kris and friends in Sneem in years past.

There was also a Pakistani-born virtuosic guitarist called Mir Ali who dropped in and played something he described as 'Renaissance', but which had a vaguely Irish sound. That was a lot of fun to play along with, and he seemed interested in working together next time I'm passing through Buffalo. Apparently he also plays tabla, among numerous other instruments.

* * *

I didn't see anything of the parade on Sunday. I'm afraid that over here Irish culture has largely been reduced to colouring everything green and getting very drunk. Certain bars in Buffalo were even running drinks specials on a Guinness-and-Jamesons cocktail called (with inconceivable lack of taste) a "car bomb"...and this is only a week after sectarian violence flared up again in Northern Ireland. I'm told that the parade features legions of young girls doing Riverdance-style stepdancing, their uniforms involving identical black curly wigs(?!). I did get over to the Ashville-Knox art gallery, though, to see an excellent exhibition on abstract expressionism and action painting. One room focused on the influence of jazz on the artists in questions, with a fairly random selection of album covers stuck up on the wall, and had Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" playing in the background. One thing I learned was that the original release of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz featured a Jackson Pollock painting on its cover.

Ornette Coleman Free Jazz album cover

Monday night is Nietzche's weekly open mic session, which has been running since 1982, the longest-running such night in Buffalo. It's apparently listed in a "top ten open mics in America" list someone compiled (hard to know how you'd be able to assess so many without attending them all many times, but people like lists...). And what an excellent night it was...

Before the session, there's a showcase singer-songwriter who gets to play an extended set. This week it was Gretchen Schultz, accompanied by Doug Morgano playing beautiful electric guitar - they turn out to be half of a local band called The Morvels. Gretchen has a really good energy, great voice, all her songs seem instantly memorable, delivered with loads of conviction and enthusiasm. The lyrics sometimes seemed to be approaching cliché territory, but never quite crossed that border. Top-ranking barroom entertainment, and much better than what I expected to be hearing. Here are The Morvels at another Buffalo bar last summer:

First up was the host, Mike Meldrum (he's been hosting it since '82). Later, talking to him, I found out that he'd given local heroine Ani DiFranco guitar lessons from age eight, sold her her first guitar, etc.. Many years later, she released his first album on her Righteous Babe label. He played "Please Say Yes", a song from the album that features DiFranco's vocals, with Gretchen taking the vocal. He's quite a character, with flat cap, thick spectacles and an oblique mumbling, bumbling humour. He followed with two beautiful songs by Townes Van Zandt, someone who he booked to play at Nietzche's in 1989.

A grizzled looking leprechaun called Kearney Fitzpatrick, who'd earlier played a pretty sloppy slide guitar version of the Stones' "Time is on My Side" while Gretchen and Doug stepped outside for a cigarette break, redeemed himself with some excellently played bluesy stuff: a song he said he'd written in Mexico called "Sigue Caminando" (that means "it keeps walking", but I think he meant it to be "I keep walking"); Tom Waits' "Mr. Siegal" and John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom".

Then I was up. Mike introduced me and correctly guessed that the saz was related to the oud. I started off with "Ambee Dagez", messed it up slightly, although I don't expect anyone noticed - went off into a jam the way it usually does. It was then just past midnight, so I pointed out that it was now technically St. Patrick's Day in Buffalo and that I'd better play something Irish. I chose "Spancil Hill". To finish, I played one of the recent wave of happy-sounding C major tunes I've put together to balance my usual output of dirginess. This all seemed to go down quite well with the patrons, and Mike asked me to do one more, so another Irish tune seemed appropriate - "She Moved Through the Fair", which I jammed out with partial success.

me playing at Nietzches' open mic
(thanks to Kira for the photo)

Next up was Kira Meade, a young, classically trained cellist who seems to have branched out in a most interesting direction. She was playing a kind of plucked, almost 'slap', cello, singing quirky songs in a quirky voice. She started with Leonard Cohen's "Why Don't You Try", accompanied by a bearded friend on backing vocals and whistling. He then left her to perform three of her own (all with a 'sin' theme). The last was a radical rewrite of the Lord's Prayer. It was quite apparent that we were being treated to something rare and enchanting, as the whole bar shut up and listened.

Kira turns out to be a native Buffalonian who studied cello with Robert Hausmann of the Buffalo Philharmonic (of which my sister Kate is the second oboist - and she shares his birthday)...and has gone on to study improvisation and composition at Berklee Colledge of Music in Boston. She also plays with Boston indie band PolySky. Here she with another cellist playing "Tarantella" by F. Kummer:

Next, we got a dreamy woman with banjolele, ultra-languid bluesy voice and buckets of convinction (and a friend playing guitar). They played Neil Young's "Harvest Moon", "Got My Mojo Workin'", a wonderfully weird arrangement of one of my favourite songs - "St. James Infirmary" and finally "a song about smokin' pot"...I went over to express my appreciation of their rendition of "St. James Infirmary" as she was leaving the bar. "It's one of my very favourite songs", I told her. "Mine too," she replied, then remarked cryptically that "it follows me around like an old ghost" and floated out of the door.

There was no one left on the list and only a few of us left in the bar, so Mike the host plugged back in. Kira had mentioned during her set that Leonard Cohen was her favourite artist, so he invited her up to sing "That's No Way to Say Goodbye". Being very familiar with this, having had a couple of Guinnesses and not expecting anyone would mind, I got my saz back out and joined in. No one minded - it was lovely. Mike then decided we should do "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire". We reached a point of late-night musical intimacy that will stay with me for many years - it wasn't a perfect performance and there were only a handful of people listening, but it was the kind of musical situation that I most love. It felt like being in someone's front room. As far a bars go, I was also reminded of the Elbow Room in Stevens Point and The Smack's open mic sessions in Whitstable.


Anonymous David J Nanni/Redheaded Stepchild said...

Dear Mathew,
It is wandering souls like yourself who often remind us of what a small world it really is. Having just read your Suwannee Springfest entry, I was about to thank you for the kind words and mention what a pleasure it was to hear you play with our Sloppy friends.
Then I discovered this entry and can hardly believe that we didn't talk more at the festival. Buffalo is our beloved home. Allentown is our 'hood. Nieztsche's is our most beloved bar and where we cut our teeth at Monday open mic. And all the people you mentioned plus many more that I'm sure you met (Jeff Goldstein, Josh Graves, Nancy Gabriel, Rose Bond, John Allen etc) are our dearest friends and comprise one of the sweetest little communities on earth. St. Patty's was the perfect time to be there and the fact that you met Mir, Michael, Gretchen, Kearney, Doug, Greg (the bald football guy) and others all in one stop means that you really got the whole picture.
Buffalo is not a place that many people find favorable. It is refreshing to hear how a perfect stranger could stumble into town and find the same experiences that we've always loved. We are currently Buffalo ex-pats living in Nashville and would love to put you up and show you the seedy side of Music City if you're ever passing through. Either way please stay in touch and continue connecting the dots!

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Doug Morgano said...

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the night. If you are in town again, please look us up!

6:30 AM  

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