By Daniel Neely
If it seems like Irish music dominates the traditional Celtic scene in New York, it’s because it does: here in New York City there are quality sessions every day of the week to choose from. However, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the ultra-hip corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue, there is a bar that lives the shell of an old candy store called Iona (ionabrooklyn.com) that is doing something no one else is doing: hosting New York City’s only traditional Scottish session on Monday nights. And it is thriving.
Founded about three years back by fiddle player Karen Brown, who lamented the City’s lack of options for musicians interested in playing the traditional and modern music of Scotland, Shetland and the Hebrides, Cape Breton Island and Donegal, the Iona session quickly became noted for the strong players who supported it right out of the box. Folks like Scottish small- and border pipe players and makers Nate Banton (elbowmusic.com) and Will Woodson (willwoodsonmusic.com), smallpiper Doug Safranek (dougsafranek.com) and fiddler Alasdair White (the Battlefield Band) quickly helped put Iona on the map.
However, as word spread, Iona attracted a larger group of players and the session found stronger footing. Reflecting back on those early days, guitarist Matt Diaz remembers how the session received “a big jolt of energy when Andrew Forbes walked in totally randomly one Monday night.” Another turning point, he notes, was when Amy Beshara and Max Carmichael started coming – they brought a lot of taste and soul.”
As personalities and performativity began to coalesce into something with more of a community feel, Iona’s musicians thought “wouldn’t it be a great idea to record what we have going here.” In agreement, the session’s regulars organized a Kickstarter and raised money for an album. Released earlier this year, “Island Wild” is a studio recording made in something of a session style that captures the energy and flair of the music at Iona on a Monday night.
Appearing here are Amy Beshara (fiddle), Andrew Forbes (reel pipes, small pipes, low whistle), Max Carmichael (guitar, banjo, mandola), Hannah Marcus (fiddle, vocals, guitar), Karen Brown (fiddle), Calum Pasqua (fiddle), Matt Diaz (guitar), Bram Pomplas (bodhrán), and Leah Rankin (cello) and the music they offer is lovely.
The group performances throughout are very nice and feature arrangements that suggest considerable forethought. Tracks like “New Claret /…,” “Mary Kelly’s,” and “Burach” sound less like what you might hear at a session and more like what you might hear in a concert. Testament, I think, to the skills of the musicians at work here.
One of the album’s more interesting tracks in this sense is “Tha Mi Sgith,” a vocal track that pairs a full ensemble arrangement that includes a group of Beshara’s young students handling the lyrics. The children sing with rough edges, but it makes for an interesting contrast and a compelling track.
The smaller ensemble performances are also quite good. Beshara, for example, flashes smart playing alongside a full tone and does an admirable job with “Killiecrankie /….” The same can be said with “Toombs,” an original tune on which Forbes plays low whistle supported by Rankin and Pomplas. Forbes’s playing is languid and smooth here, and the result is just lovely.
Perhaps the album’s most compelling track is Pasqua’s track “Neil Gow’s Fiddle /….” His playing is expressive and nuanced, and he’s in full control of the melody. Rankin’s cello playing works particularly well on this track and gives Pasqua’s playing an added dimension.
The music on this album makes a strong case for the session’s excellence. However, it’s not simply the musicians who have made Iona a special place for music: the bar’s commitment has been just as important. Brown is emphatic that “[the musicians] are so grateful for the support of the bar, for allowing us this space to promote Scottish music and culture – their patronage is incredibly appreciated.”
Overall, “Island Wild” is a lovely album that documents something great happening in New York’s traditional music community. Fans of Scottish music will definitely want to put their hands on the album – it will almost certainly lead to a trip to Iona for the music! The Iona session happens on Monday nights from 8:00pm. The album’s official release will take place at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theater (www.jalopy.biz) on Oct. 30. For more information on the session and the album, visit ionascottishsession.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.