Trad music rules at Mona's on Mondays
By Earle Hitchner
Bob Geldof's "I Don't Like Mondays" probably wouldn't faze the patrons of Mona's. Located on Avenue B between 13th and 14th Streets in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the pub attracts a hardy corps of hard-core traditional musicians and listeners every Monday night. Music begins after 11 p.m. and can run straight to the bar-closing time of 4 a.m. or later.
Anchoring this weekly session are Patrick Ourceau, a Paris-born fiddler who came to America in 1989 and can knock out Clare and Galway tunes with ease and expertise, and Eamon O'Leary, a Dublin guitarist, tenor banjoist, and singer who's had an impact on New York's traditional scene since he immigrated here in 1991. For a decade, trad music has run strong on Mondays at Mona's, and the idea of capturing some of the craic on a recording has born fruit in "Live at Mona's."
With a deft technical touch in the recording process from NYU ethnomusicology doctoral candidate Scott Spencer, Ourceau and O'Leary have delivered what Mick Moloney, in his fascinating eight-page historical essay, describes as "the very first commercially available recording of a bar session in the history of Irish music in America."
Recorded over a period of nine months in 2003, the 17 tracks on this new CD are varied, unvarnished, spirited performances complete with background chatter, clacking billiard balls, slamming doors, and the soft thrum of passing traffic. It all serves to put the listener into the session, and you may find yourself inadvertently asking for a pint from the bartender halfway through.
Ten of the tracks are culled from what must have been two epic nights of live musicmaking at Mona's: April 21 and May 12, 2003.
The April 21 session featured Ourceau, O'Leary, fiddler Dana Lyn, flutist Brian Holleran, keyboardist Brendan Dolan, and singer Susan McKeown. The playing and pace on "The Jug of Punch/McDonagh's" reels are exemplary, as the fiddles of Ourceau and Lyn mesh smoothly with O'Leary's banjo and Dolan's keyboard. The same holds true for the four on "The Hare's Paw/Knocknagow/The Templehouse" reels, where the flute of Holleran, a prize pupil of Galway great Mike Rafferty, adds to the buoyancy of the playing. In both those medleys, the shifts between tunes are executed with surprising precision for a session. There's also a song from McKeown that hushes the crowd into close attention, "Maidin Fhomhair," and her vocal is delicately framed by O'Leary on guitar and Lyn on fiddle.
At the May 12 session were Ourceau, O'Leary, Holleran, Lúnasa uilleann piper Cillian Vallely, and Wicklow native bouzouki player Tony Davoren. The energy and enthusiasm of their playing are almost tactile in "Miss Thornton's/My Love Is in America" reels, "Tobin's Favorite/Jackson's Bottle of Brandy" jigs, and "The Black-Haired Lass/Aggie Whyte's Chattering Magpie/Crowley's" reels. The lift and pulse of their music are usually the elusive optimal goals of a studio recording, and yet this all takes place matter-of-factly in a pub with no pretense of bohemian swankness. Even so, grit turns grace here.
The music played on the night of May 19 must have also been memorable. The lone sampling of it here, "I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave/Will You Come With Me?" jigs, features Ourceau, O'Leary on guitar, and Limerick-born Mick Moloney on tenor banjo. This track serves as a strong reminder that Moloney takes a backseat to no one in the world of Irish four-string banjo players (Gerry O'Connor, Enda Scahill, Kieran Hanrahan, et al.). Credit also goes to Moloney, a professor at New York University and a key member of NYU's Glucksman Ireland House, for lighting a fire under Ourceau and O'Leary to make this CD.
Among the other tracks on "Live at Mona's" are songs sung by O'Leary, Aidan Brennan, and Steve Johnson, and more dance tunes, such as "Waiting for Emilie," a waltz performed by Ourceau, Lyn, and O'Leary on guitar, and "The Mountain Lark/The Heathery Breeze/The Connaught Heifers," reels played by Ourceau and uilleann piper Ivan Goff. Reels rule on the CD (9 of 17 tracks), in fact, no doubt providing a potent antidote to encroaching sleepiness, say, at 3 o'clock in the morning.
But I can't imagine anyone nodding off while Ourceau, O'Leary, and guests play music. By the time you hear "last call" from the barkeep on the final track, you may, like me, ask: "So soon?"
Earlier on the CD, at the tail end of "The Chattering Magpie/The Flax in Bloom" reels played by Ourceau, Holleran, O'Leary, and Davoren, you can also hear this conversational exchange:
"Did you like it?"
Containing nearly 60 minutes of music, the CD is available at www.liveatmonas.com. Inquiries about purchasing it can also be made at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, One Washington Mews, New York, NY 10003 ( 998-3950).