Review: Trad Sessions

David Patterson

trad music“Have you brought your tools?” is the question asked to me and my friend Luc as we step into Waxy O’Connor’s. The man asking is Steph, who has been running folk sessions for the last 13 years.

From a distant corner of the pub come the sounds of Scottish folk rhythms, echoed through incessantly foot-tapping punters who have come for a pint and an earful of Glasgow’s finest folk players. At the beating heart of Glasgow’s music scene is Trad – traditional folk music.

The Sessions organiser Susan claims this to be “Glasgow’s original soul music.” Just by looking around, you can feel the warmth radiating off the smiling crowd. The best folk musicians, both young and old, play with such energy and enthusiasm, slipping into each reel, jig and rhythm with perfect ease. Accordionists, fiddlers, a clarsach (harp), a bodhran (Irish drum) and cello players and guitarists all make up the troupe who are paid for their services with free drinks from the bar.

Starting at Waxy’s, they play (and drink) their way to the Flying Duck and finish at the Ben Nevis in the West End.  Sitting back, sipping a pint and letting each ditty take control of your tapping foot is my perfect hangover cure from the all-night session the previous evening. And the best part is that it’s absolutely free.

Yet whilst Trad has been on the rise across Scotland for the last 20 years, it is still largely unknown to the masses of party-going students at the University. “It wasn’t advertised in Glasgow uni,” says Glasgow University Erasmus student Kristian. “I heard that Glasgow was a great music town, but I had to find out about these sessions off the internet.” Indeed, looking around the Irish pub, you can’t help but notice how small the crowd actually is – with the 8 or 9 players as the majority.

Luc, an accomplished guitarist and accordionist from the Conservatoire, tells me that Glasgow has the best sessions out of the ones he’s played in. “The Ben Nevis is brilliant for crowd participation, but I’d like to see more Scottish music students getting in on it,” he adds.

Once the last tune has reverberated, we head to the Flying Duck at 7pm. Hidden away on Renfield Street, it’s notably busier than Waxy’s, with a younger crowd who swarm the kitchen-like bar where pints of lager are only £2.30. After the folksy hum in Waxy’s, the music here takes a slight turn. I watch a mandolinist twang out a blues melody while a bodhran player thumps out a slow, swing-like rhythm reminiscent of Louisiana. Susan explains to me how the Sessions are a “big melting pot that is always evolving, with a fusion of different styles and genres.”

I find this to be true in popular artists like Mumford and Sons, whose pop-folk is lauded the world over. Whilst we unwittingly nod our heads in appreciation, Susan goes on to say what these sessions mean to her: “When it comes to people who aren’t involved in folk music, it’s about breaking down the twee stigma.”

I certainly don’t profess myself as an expert on folk music, but I really don’t see any of the stereotypical folk players around – ones who usually range between 70 and 90 years, warbling on about losing some lass in a tartan storm. Instead you feel invigorated by the diversity and find yourself smiling, with the morning’s hangover now a distant memory.

This energy is taken even further when the case-carrying few stagger along Argyle Street and into the Ben Nevis. Foot-tapping now turns into ground-shaking stamping and you have to grip your glass before it dances its way off the table. With bits of thatched roof and stone on the walls, you get a sense that the highlands are weaved into the very room and brought to life through the raucous tunes that are thrashed out on fiddles and beaten on bohrans, a cojon and even a djembe. By far my favourite percussion instrument is the whisk that Steve whacks against the table in time to the thick Celtic sounds. There is an agreement among the musicians that the Ben is the best of the three venues, so they host two other weekly Trad nights on a Wednesday and Thursday.

It also appears to be a favourite for the listeners. The inebriated throng slowly orbits the bar and the one-drink-too-many bar patrons clap, stamp and shout out their appreciation. I grab a chat with one of them who’s a regular at the Sessions, coming for the “good tunes and good banter”. He continues: “I prefer this to rock gigs, as you’re not screaming into your friend’s ears. It’s a hidden gem of Glasgow that more people should know about.”

The Session winds up at last orders and is met with loud shouts for more. Luc tells me that everyone calls it “Sunday Funday” and after 10 hours of energetic strumming, picking and beating, I have to agree. Free music, decent pints, a lively atmosphere and so much energy from both players and crowd – who says Sundays are dead?