The Alehouse Sessions, led by violinist and curator Bjarte Eike, feels like walking into a 17th century English pub. English sea shanties and Scandinavian folk songs fill the room to transport the audience back in time- or so reads the online description of the event. Interesting, unique, an interactive musical experience – all enticing buzzwords, but at the end of the day there’s only so much excitement the phrase “17th century tavern” can evoke.
Skepticism aside, the seven men need only a few bars to convince the audience they are in the right place – or that they are about to be. Most people attending sit at tables in the oval room sipping on a beer or cider. Others sit around the edges. Performers nearly hit someone’s grandma in the head with their guitar neck. They make clear this will be more of a jam session than a performance, more of a sharing of musical space than a demonstration of arranged works.
It is hard not to lose track of time in St. Cecilia’s hall. High-tempo fiddle-heavy songs follow somber tunes from a violist whose eerie yet beautiful tenor voice scarcely fills the room. Some songs are formal compositions, others are informal pub chants; calls and responses evoking a pub-song session. Halfway through the show, a performer – this guy really does seem like someone plucked him from a sailor’s pub in the late 1600s – takes the audience through his depiction of the four types of drunkards, theatrically demonstrating what vomiting into the underside of a Djembe drum might look like. His bandmates cringe; the audience roars with laughter.
Along with a great stage presence, every performer quietly shows incredible musicianship. Aside from a percussionist using a Djembe (vomit-free) and a bass drum, the group is mostly stringed instruments. The front man is on violin, along with a violist. Two guitarists seem to mix Spanish-classical fingering with more traditional folk strumming. The bass player sends low-frequency pulses with subtle plucks, but the room shakes with his deep bowing strokes. A keyboardist trades off between a harpsicord and an accordion-like organ – evoking an orchestra behind the other strings.
The Alehouse Sessions is musical, but it is just as much a story, a song, a dance, and a drink. I don't lose my hearing like I might at a rock concert, but the group’s energy level is high enough to give anyone a second wind and make for a lovely evening out. The intermission stampede to get more beer on the next street over doesn't hurt either.