The Story of The Starry

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.

Re: The Story of The Starry

Oh man, so there IS music there! Exciting! I think I’ll stop by sometime…maybe even participate once my pipes come in.

Re: The Story of The Starry

Thank for this post it’s a lovely read. Shea used to run a session I went to. I think he accompanied me on guitar first time I ever sang in public. He’s a great musician and singer you’re very lucky. The local session I go to is similar in content to yours but definitely less organised. It’ still great craic though I’m really looking forward to it now after reading this🙂 Don’t think we have any Gandalfs though 😉

Re: The Story of The Starry

Thanks, I enjoyed the read. I hope you included it in the comments for the session, or at least something similar. I now have an urge to cross swords with the hair on my chinny chin chin…and cheeks and upper lip… 😉

Re: The Story of The Starry

Lovely tale. Its amazing how a single ‘character’ can change something from being good, to being unforgettable.
Wish I could have been there.

Re: The Story of The Starry

Great story, well written too. Thank you.

Re: The Story of The Starry

**Gandalfs!!!** That’s very good.

And that’s how you get a regional style going.

Re: The Story of The Starry

We used to play there in the 70’s, and were amazed at the people who used to dance to jigs and reels in wheelchairs! Glad it’s still going strong.

Re: The Story of The Starry

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in at this session in the summer of 2001 when I had to take a trip to San Francisco to help one of my sisters. The musicians at this session made this "foreigner" from out-of-state feel welcome by allowing him to sit in and play music with them.

Re: The Story of The Starry

The Starry Session has been around for a good while. As Shay Black often says, he’s been here every Sunday for fifteen freakin’ years. I don’t think that is true. And I doubt that Shay would have sung a song he had written. Every week he makes the same "parish announcements". Give quiet to singers, sing something you heard from someone else, and it should be Irish. And if you have heard it from someone else, that’s Irish enough.