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The Celtic Connection

After 18 years, Houston's Irish Session is as much about family as music

With them they brought the reels and ballads and jigs and chanteys that preserved their history, traditions and legends. By virtue of numbers, this largest of immigrant groups became perhaps the most assimilated -- or perhaps the Celts assimilated everyone else. The melodies of the highlands and bogs became an integral part of the music that evolved along with the United States' national identity; without the Celtic traditions of Appalachia, Nashville would be just another town in Tennessee. But as the Celts became Americans, and their music became hillbilly, bluegrass and country, that music also somehow, inexplicably, survived as something very close to what it had been in times and places where English was regarded as a foreign language.

The popularity of Celtic folk music is either a testament to the timeless appeal of these sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes jig-inspiring tunes, or perhaps an argument in favor of the nebulous theory of racial memory. A heartbeat that quickens to the pounding of a bodhran may be no proof of an ancestral line that survived the Vikings, the English and the Tennessee Valley Authority, but statistically speaking, many multigenerational Americans whose knowledge of their own ethnic heritage has become somewhat vague could probably find, if they looked hard enough, a Scots-Irish ancestor who mucked through the swamps of colonial Georgia carrying a fiddle or mandolin.

Celtic blood-ties real, suspected and imagined have given many the impetus to learn the folk-arts of the ancient tribes; that's just one reason why the Wednesday night Session at the Mucky Duck is as much a school and tribal gathering as a musical event. The musicians on-stage seem more interested in learning, and passing on, a hard-earned ancient tradition than they are in playing to the crowd. Indeed, away from the tables close to the stage where most of the musicians take their breaks, the Session is as much cultural bonding as music appreciation.

A timeless dance step, learned on the dancer's latest pilgrimage to Dunoon or Dublin, can draw as much rapt attention as the music that fuels the steps. Conversations around the bar lead to information about lessons in Scots Gaelic and tour-group trips to folk-music festivals in Brittany; a comment on the Celtic knot-work logo on someone's T-shirt can lead to a stirring discourse on the merits of the religion of the Druids. And on-stage, the music that introduced this extended family to its common roots plays on.

After each song, the musicians hold their instruments in their laps, heads coming together and beer glasses coming up as the next selection is decided by committee. A fiddle player sets his instrument against the wall and heads toward the bar, a journey that is interrupted several times for handshaking, backslapping and laughter. A pair of musicians, bearing bodhran and tin whistle, come up and take chairs on-stage, inserting themselves into the conversation that splinters and fades as a loud, insistent guitar builds the framework of an air that is soon fleshed out by the other instruments, drowned out a few feet from the stage by the buzzing of the crowd.

When bones and bodhran player Rex Shaver notices that three vocalists with ties to Ceili's Muse are in the audience, he invites Drennon and longtime (although not necessarily current) Muse-mates Melanie O'Sullivan and Mary Maddux on-stage. After warning the crowd that squeamish pet owners should leave, the trio, with soaring harmonies and hysterical gestures, launch into "Nobody's Moggie Now," a soprano-trio tribute to a dearly beloved feline that is now, well ... flat, as in road kill. Returning to their chairs as the audience roars, Maddux is asked what relevance traditional Celtic music has to American culture. Without hesitating, she replies, "If it was relevant it would be a hell of a lot better culture -- and Guinness is very good for you." Meanwhile, on-stage, a cappella harmonies have been replaced with instrumental ones, the harmonizers blissfully uncaring about their alleged irrelevance, playing and passing on something that, to them, is vastly more important than 15 minutes of fame.

There's no need for anyone to be in charge, so no one is. Anyone with the self-confidence to take the stage is welcome to do so when the mood strikes them; it's not unusual to see a performer join in or leave the stage in mid-song on a whim or a mission.

There's no disrespect intended by the patrons who ignore the music to converse, and no offense taken by the performers, who do their share of gabbing when they take their breaks. Standing at the bar, Shaver, who has been a Session regular "only for about ten years," comments, "It's good to have the kids come in and play. I like knowing this music is going to outlive me."

Predominate among the "kids" is Diehl Moran, who, celebrating his 14th birthday, has been playing violin since the age of five, "but only seriously since I was about nine." Still, a balance of classical training and lessons from Greg Harbaur of the Gypsies stands him in good stead, enough so that he's accepted as an equal. To celebrate his birthday, Moran takes the stage to sing his own version of "The Wild Rover" -- detailing the agonies of being a working musician seven years before he can go into a bar unaccompanied by his parents, a prospect which seems not to bother Moran's mother and father a whit.

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