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Random Thoughts On Random Tunes 3 - The Eavesdropper

So ... it's a Sunday "teatime" session in a boisterous pub in South East London and we've been on the go for a few hours.

As sometimes happens in sessions, two new faces have appeared and settled in amongst us.  One of the newcomers has with him not just one but TWO bodhrans!  Never mind that we've already got two bodhrans in the regular crew and a spoons player ... 

The other newcomer  produces ... a bodhran!  So there we are ... four melody players (banjo, accordion/one-row melodeon/fiddle/whistle, fiddle and whistle) and five percussionists.  An unusual mix, you would have thought but these things happen and no use crying over spilt milk.  The motto is ... play on and hope the various batterers of metal on metal and wood on goat can agree among themselves turns to sit out the odd set.

I'm right into the tunes anyway and I pay little heed to the newbies, being more concerned with the interplay between myself and the other melody players.

A lull develops and it occurs to me that this might be a good time to play "The Eagle's Whistle" which I tend to follow with "The Earl's Chair" (try it yourself ... the reel makes a very nice change after the march).  I quickly establish that at least one of the crew knows both tunes and we set off.  The pace has been quite fast and furious all evening and so I'm determined to ensure that the march proceeds at a gentle, stately manner and I deliberately take hold of the timing, ignoring the tendency of other players to nudge it along a little.  By the time we get to the first repeat, we've settled into a very steady rhythm and the tune takes over...

However, as we approach the second part, I'm aware of raised voices.  Apparently one of the new bodhranii has taken up residence behind me and has been talking to the other new bodhran player over the top of the tune.  Our spoons player, who - together with our regular bodhran players - has determined that percussion would be inappropriate for the march section of the set, is a tad annoyed at the lack of respect shown by the necomers.  At first politely, but increasingly insistently, he requests/demands their silence...

One of the guys takes heed and mutters an apology.  However, Mr Two-Drums responds to the spoon player's demands in a whining manner.  "What's it to you?"  "I'd appreciate it if you would back off."  "I've never been spoken to like this at a session in my life!"  And so on.  I can see where this one is heading as I make the change into the reel.  Spoons grows ever more insistent.  The new boy rails ever more whiningly.  Neither is going to back down and Spoons will ensure that he emerges with his honour intact!

This, I know, is now going to end up with the spilling of blood and, possibly, flashing blue lights.  I could intervene at this point and possibly rescue the situation but instead, I make the decision to ignore the conversation happening behind me and play on.  I look across the table at the young accordion player who's made the change with me.  Her eyes are as wide as saucers as she watches the scene unfold and I can tell she's uncertain as to what to do next.  I signal to her to carry on (via some form of barely perceptible nod, bordering on telepathy ...) and I close my eyes and climb back inside the tune.

"The Earl's Chair" is one of those tunes I've played for years and years and so I'm able to concentrate on the tune rather than the mechanics of the tune, taking opportunities to twist it here and there and to up the ante a little at each repeat.  By the time we've come to the end of the second repeat, we're flying.

Throughout the tune, the argument continues.  Mr Spoons becomes increasingly frustrated at the new bloke's reluctance to simply pipe down.  Meanwhile the "aggrieved" party continues to remonstrate, reedily and whiningly and ever more loudly.  Eventually, the inevitable comes to pass.  Spoons gets up out his chair, bristling and fuming.  "I'm not asking you to shut up, I'm TELLING you!"

And then a lurch, a grip of the collar and the administration of four or five punches to the bodhranii's (literally) gobsmacked face.

The punches land as we reach the end of the tune, just in time for me to pass my banjo across to someone and restrain Spoons, who is about to launch his second offensive.

(Through the corner of my eye, I witness one of our regular bodhran players zip up his case and slip quickly and quietly out of the pub.  He waves me a quick goodbye and mimes that he'll phone me later.  In the meantime the gubbed newbie is running round the pub like a headless chicken, pleading with all and sundry to agree with him that this was outrageous and unfair.

He received very little support, it must be said.  Afterwards, when the dust had settled, we all agreed that he didn't deserve a thumping and I made it clear to Spoons that he was out of line to have smacked your man.  But ... he should have given proper order when asked and instead of whinging and whining and yapping on, he should have apologised straightway for talking over the tune.  I could imagine what might have happened if the same boy had talked over the tunes in the same way in some other sessions I've gone to and I concluded that there could well have been less arguing and swifter retribution!)

I've debated with myself several times whether I should have stopped the tune and intervened.  But I my responsibility was to the tunes, not to the musicians, not to the punters.  They're adults (up to a point) and ought to be responsible for their own actions.  Besides there were other musicians around - some of them almost as thick-set as myself - who could easily have intervened since they weren't carrying the tune.

So there you go ... for a moment or two, while the debate was in full swing, I was "The Eavesdropper".

The tune itself ... I first came across this tune, as far as I can remember, on Paddy Keenan's "Poirt an Phiobaire" album (with Arty McGlynn on absolute top form).  The first few notes fooled me into thinking that "Out On The Ocean" was coming up.  Subsequently, I've come across it in all sorts of sessions and in all sorts of CDs.  I love the way that the second part, in particular, lends itself to interpretation and each player tends to favour this or that setting, accentuating this or that phrase.  Now and again I trip over myself in the second part, which has a similarity to the second part of "The Primrose Vale" and I find myself slipping between the two - much to the puzzlement of my musician colleagues.  Occasionally, the end result is the sort of train wreck which we all seek to avoid in sessions ... but not to worry.  Train wrecks are nothing compared to the Sunday afternoon dust-up in South East London!

All feedback very welcome, by email to aidan@paythereckoning.com

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February 2010


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