The Story of The Starry
I lived in Berkeley, CA for six months, and went to their session every single week. I recently added the session to TheSession, and here share my story.
Upon one summer’s night, I took some out-of-town guests to the weekly Sunday session at the Starry Plough. My friend gazed around the large room, filled half with musicians and half with punters, and remarked, "look at all the Gandalfs here!"
And Gandalfs are just the beginning. Along with the old wizards sit a person or two dressed in some kind of Victorian or Renaissance garb, an old revolutionary in a tie-dyed shirt, and a merry group of students out for the evening. Francis, the matronly old lady who runs the bar, sits in the corner, sharing gossip with an old friend or two. Her daughter Rose, the proverbial Maid Behind the Bar, pours Guinnesses the evening through.
A motley crew of musicians shows up each week, including a dozen or so regulars — Shea Black, the boisterous jolly Irish session leader, along with Kathy, Peter, Lonnie, Susan, some aging hippies who duck out the door to get high between sets, and plenty of others. A couple Berkeley students will show up and sit along the periphery, as well, generally sitting flummoxed, as they realize all that work learning those first six tunes won’t be getting them too far.
It’s rather unclear what the official session start time is. It’s either 9pm and they start early, or 8:30 and they start late. Often, a couple musicians arrive ahead of time, and chat over some pints while waiting for the rest of us to arrive.
After the first round of tunes, about 45 minutes into the night, Shea rises from his seat and calls out with his bellowing voice, "Hello, everybody!" to which all shout back, "Hello, Shea!" He then leads off a set of songs. The bar shushes to listen, and when the chorus comes around, everyone sings along.
The songs typically start off with selections that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dubliners album, but this being Berkeley, they go in a lot of directions from there. In my times there, I’ve sung along to (among other things) The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, traditional french folk songs, English sea chanties, rousing labor anthems, and at one point, "I Want It That Way," by the Backstreet Boys.
Some singers take a traditional song and rewrite the lyrics. I once heard a rendition of a fairly obscure trad song (I think Shea wrote it), altered to tell the story of a girl who fell in love with a faery prince. Almost without realizing it, we all started humming along an accompanying harmony. As the story unfolded, something happened — a magical, haunting, almost otherworldly presence filled the room. I think back on it today and still get shivers.
Once the set of songs ends, Shea rambles around the bar with The Wooley Hat, an old wool hat hoisted on a wooden stick, collecting tips from the patrons. The hat looks like an artifact from Harry Potter — which, given the rest of the atmosphere, isn’t entirely surprising.
Sitting around in a circle, with pints and a lone candle sitting on a table in the middle, the music goes for hours. It fills this special pub, with its cracked floors and wobbly wooden chairs and walls strewn with revolutionary propaganda from the world over, lifting the spirits of the motley crowd, Gandalfs and all, who gather each week to bask in the (mostly) Irish tradition that we love so well.