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A Memory From Dublin When It Sizzled

     I can still smell the mixed aroma of stale cigarette smoke and Guinness and rain-soaked woollen overcoats when I think back on May, 1978. I’d arrived in Dublin, wide-eyed and wide-eared, in search of as much Irish music as I could absorb. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to be there.

     In late 70s Dublin, Irish traditional music was enjoying an explosion of talent and enthusiasm the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a generation. By happy accident, I had started playing Irish fiddle a couple of years earlier and had come to Dublin, fiddle in hand, determined to sit in on some sessions and soak up tunes and Guinness in whatever ratios presented themselves.

     The very first evening, I hunted down Slattery’s Bar, the name that came up most often when the helpful locals were suggesting the best spots to find a good tune. Several blocks off brightly-lit O’Connell Street and a bit up from the River Liffey, Slattery’s was a hive of activity at eight in the evening. Downstairs was filled with serious drinkers and a juke box blasting country music. Up the rickety stairs I found another, more spacious bar with a stage under the windows and a folk club going full blast.

     I remember standing there agog at the music. Four disheveled musicians occupied the stage, accompanying their singing with guitar, a low whistle, a bodhran, and an exotic-looking stringed thing I’d never seen before. My hair stood up and stayed up. The harmonies seemed to wrap themselves right around my DNA strands. The singing was clear and impassioned. The playing infused the ancient tunes with a rock energy that was, well, perfect. The band moved from recognizable ballads to songs I’d never heard to strung-together medleys of tunes so tasty and infectious I could barely keep from whipping out my fiddle and trying to scrape along with them.

     That evening changed my life. Within half an hour of walking into Slattery’s, I swore I’d get to know these guys if it killed me. I had to know more about them, about the songs, about the tunes, and about that weird stringed instrument.

     Much remains hazy regarding the latter part of the evening. No one kept an accurate tally of the number of rounds consumed. Apparently I’d had the presence of mind to flip on my cassette recorder. But this much I retained: the band, Tipsy Sailor, was made up of guitarists Kieran Halpin and Mick Fitzgerald (doubling on bodhran), who traded off on lead singing and writing the ballads I had never heard before, whistle player Johnny Keenan, and Fiaich O Brun, who told me his eight-string double-course instrument was called an Irish bouzouki. He let me strum on it a little. It had a very long scale and a flat back, with a lovely trefoil-shaped sound hole. He had it tuned to fifths. I was fascinated by it and asked where he got it. He was vague, but indicated bouzoukis were popular but nobody was making and marketing them in any coherent way. You sort of had to stumble on one or make it yourself.

     As it happens, I stayed friends with Kieran and Mick and continue to share music with Mick to this day, 22 years on. But that’s another story. Back to the tale of the bouzouki.

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