Author: Campbell, Bruce

Make Every Journey a Musical One

Maybe you’ve noticed (or maybe you haven’t noticed) my absence in the past two Wednesdays. I went on a vacation to the UK for a couple of weeks – I assumed I’d be able to post “reports from the road” as it were, but my Chromebook’s charger didn’t play well with my 240-to-110V converter, and I just couldn’t do it. (Thanks to Rick Cornish for stepping in for me!)

First and foremost, this was a vacation in the true sense – a 16 day respite from all of my normal pressures. I truly did vacate. But I retained one aspect of my “normal” life: I brought a guitar. Since I was going to England, Scotland and Ireland, I hoped I could find some people to play music with.

I wish I played fiddle or mandolin –it was absolutely a pain to schlep a guitar around. And for the first 9 or 10 days, it looked like I was hauling that axe around forno good reason. I did play while waiting for trains, and garnered some applause from the opposite platforms, but that alone is not a great reason to drag that instrument around.

When I got to Belfast, I finally encountered an active live music scene, but it didn’t include any jams that I could see. I enjoyed the bands in one downtown bar, and I really enjoyed the people I met. One night, a fellow said, “Hey! Where are you from?”, and when I told him, he said “California? Bluegrass, right?”.

I quickly glanced down at my shirt and checked my hat – surely I was wearing a festival T-shirt or cap. But no, it was an odd conclusion. I did acknowledge that I play bluegrass, and we went our separate ways in the pub and settled in to watch that night's band – a talented duo with guitar and flute/fiddle. At one point during the show, the guitar player said “Does anybody want to come up and sing a song?”, and right away, from across the bar, the guy I met earlier screamed out “Get the bluegrass guy up!”

I won’t lie – it was pretty easy to convince me to take the stage, and I got to replace the guitar player for a couple of songs, and the applause I got from that crowd in that Belfast pub felt just great! As I told my wife afterwards, “That justified my bringing a guitar!” (Even though I was playing the other guy's guitar instead of my own).

Next up was Dublin, and I’ve been told there’s always a “session” to be found there. The acts in the local bars in the tourist area were pretty pedestrian – mostly single troubadours singing a mixture of Irish folk songs and pop covers – not was I was looking for. I asked around, and got the name of a club up the road where “real” Irish music was being played. It was worth the walk. The musicians were the real deal and it was wonderful. Afterwards, I asked one of the musicians where I could find a session, and he recommended a place across the river Liffey.

The next day, I checked the map and made plans to check it out. But there was another surprise in store. While walking down one of the downtown streets, I heard the unmistakable sounds of bluegrass coming from one of the alleys by my hotel. I ran back to my room and grabbed my guitar. The band busking in the alley was very kind to ask me to join them, and I had a great time playing with them. They were all local guys, Dubliners, but they played bluegrass very well, and it was a great time. At last I got to use my guitar!

That night, we did go to the other pub across the river (despite warnings from the hotel concierge not to cross the river after dark), and found the session I had been seeking. It was humbling experience. We had some common ground (they knew tunes like “Over the Waterfall” and “Saint Anne’s Reel”), but most of their repertoire was not familiar to me, nor was the guitarists’ techniques. They were glad to show me what they were doing, and telegraph the frequent key modulations, (it reminded me of Mexican polka in the near constant modulations), and I just hung on for dear life. But it was great fun, and I finished my vacation feeling like a real musician, confident that I can play almost anywhere.

I didn’t go to the UK just to play music, but I’m really glad I found the chance to do so, and I made memories I will never forget.

Posted:  7/17/2013

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