SRO Saturdays at Lillie’s

Dan Neely, on the banjo, said of this photo: “Jimmy O’Kelly took it a while back. It was a particularly good day when a lot of great musicians happened to show up.” The trad scenes of New York City, Boston, Washington DC and Baltimore were represented, with Neely’s fellow musicians being: Brendan Bell, flute [facing away]; Nathan Gourley, fiddle; Sean McComiskey, accordion; Cillian Vallely, uilleann pipes; Sean Gavin, uilleann pipes; Josh Dukes, guitar.

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By Peter McDermott

You may wonder what Dan Neely gets up to when he isn’t being the go-to intellectual on all matters relating to Irish traditional music, or fielding sundry inquiries about the Jamaican music called mento, or lecturing in the Irish studies department at NYU, or writing his Echo column, or doing research for scholarly articles, in addition to being husband to Gail and father to Henry, 5, and Ronan, 2 months.

Well, much of his downtime, as you might have guessed, is devoted to playing the music. Most notably he can be found leading a trad session from 3 to 6 p.m. each Saturday at Lillie’s of 17th Street in Manhattan. It’s cited often in print as one of the best in the New York metropolitan area.

If you believe, though, that too many afternoons in a pub are indicative of an ill-spent youth, there is one mitigating factor at Lillie’s, just west of Union Square: the sun shines directly on its musicians, at least during the summer months. Sometimes, the banjo-playing Neely is forced to wear a baseball cap.

Everything about Lillie’s, including its front window, is big in terms of dimension. And that means that the band is easily spotted from the street. Inevitably, the musicians draw in a quite a bit of foot traffic. “On the sunnier days, people will see us, wander around [the neighborhood] and come back,” Neely said.

When it’s raining, however, they tend to rush home with their shopping.

But, one non-weather related factor can determine crowd size. “It depends on who’s in town, who is playing,” Neely said. He sends out an email blast midweek, and that usually has news of the guest musician or musicians.

And to help things run smoothly at the 13 East 17th Street gathering and others like it, he has posted on his website “Standard Session Rules.” There are 10.

“The first two are the most important,” he said. They are: “1. Respect the music. 2. Play so that you’re listening to what everyone else is playing.” They might seem obvious to you and me, but the session leader said each rule was written with someone in mind.

It’s not unknown, he told me, for a musician to display a “sense of entitlement by wandering in and needing to command the stage, not listening to what everybody is playing. Basically making a show of themselves.”

He added: “But most rules are common sense.”

Rule No. 4 is: “Chat is good, so don’t go ahead and start a tune if you’d be interrupting a good chat. Conversely, don’t disrupt a good tune with loud chat. You don’t want to be that person.”

No. 5 is a bit more technical: “No more than one harmony instrument (guitar/bouzouki/piano) and/or one bodhrán sitting in the circle at time. Multiples of either should be prepared to take turns.”

Chat is less of an issue deeper into the bar, beyond the musicians’ area at the end of the bar. There, they can’t be heard at all. But that’s fine, too, as their very presence adds to the ambiance.

Lillie’s, a bar with lots of 19th inspirations, is as impressive as anything Dublin, Belfast or London has to offer. It’s named for the actress Lillie Langtry, who was born on Oct. 13, 1853, and died at age 75. Neely, who shares Langtry’s birthday, is impressed with the operation, from the owners -- Irishmen Frank McCole and Tommy Burke – on down.

“It’s a beautiful bar,” said the banjoist, who participates in other pub sessions around the metropolitan area, though not as leader. “It’s a bit upscale, but nice and very welcoming.”

There is no special code of behavior, beyond the obvious, for the session audience. It’s okay, for example, for the listener’s eye to wander to the screens above the bartenders’ heads. An uneventful soccer game, even with the volume on mute, is more interesting to me than an exciting game of hurling or cricket at full blast, and, so, I was able to settle in comfortably enough at Lillie’s.

“I don’t even notice the TVs,” Neely said. Indeed, during the three times I was there in recent months, it was only on loud for a big horse race after the band had finished.

The sessions were all different, but each attracted a diverse crowd -- ranging from the aficionado to the curious -- of young, old and middle-aged listeners.

Lillie’s is family friendly, though when you see a toddler being bounced on a parent’s shoulders in time with the music, you know that can last only so long.

Some people visit for an hour, while others linger for two or stay for all three. For much of that time, it’s standing room only. Even here, Neely has a rule for his musicians. It comes in the multipart No. 9, saying, “Tom Dunne may not always feel like sitting, but should be accommodated if he wants to.”

Getting mentioned by name in Neely’s rules is a sign of respect and affection. And that leads us to the last, No. 10: “None of these rules apply to Donie Carroll. He can do whatever the hell he damn wants.”

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