Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Soft and hard emotion

On Sunday afternoons, May Kelly's Cottage hosts a weekly seisiun. For those not blessed with the divine ability to communicate in the Irish tongue, seisiun simply means "session" and it denotes those informal pub gatherings in which musicians assemble to play traditional Irish songs. May Kelly's weekly seisiun is a heavily-attended event. You arrive early if you wish to sit. Your ears buzz from the cacophony of fiddle, button accordion, and bodhran, and clapping hands and chattering voices. And when those four pints of Smithwick's demand an immediate departure, you inadvertently step on feet and jostle elbows as you maneuver through dense herds of humanity.

One Sunday, a man with a head like a pencil eraser and a chassis few could wrap both arms around sang "The Leaving of Liverpool" and when he neared the final rendering of the chorus he began to slowly amble backward toward the room's entrance and after belting out the tune's closing phrase he swept one arm in an exaggerated good-bye flourish and quickly departed, hearing only the start of what was raucous applause for his performance.

And on another Sunday, a man brought a double bass to the seisiun. The effect of seeing such an instrument at such a gathering and in such a setting was like watching a rickshaw mosey up to the starting line at the Indianapolis 500. When I saw the man with the double bass enter a room where the weighty burden of Irishness being hefted by countless listeners was practically palpable (burdens both real and imagined), I couldn't help but think of Richard Davis and the weighty burden of Irishness he encountered when he walked into Century Sound Studios in New York City.

Davis is responsible for the most compelling instrumentation on Astral Weeks. His basslines are so smooth, so melodious, and so pure that you almost fail to notice his achievement. But that was possibly his goal. Davis' bass is the soft emotion that rests beneath the hard emotion of Van Morrison's vocals and acoustic guitar—Morrison expresses power while Davis suggests vulnerability.

Davis is also responsible for one of my favorite quotes regarding Astral Weeks. In a Rolling Stone piece the bassist discussed the album's twilight recording sessions: "There's a certain feel about a seven-to-ten-o'clock session. You've just come back from a dinner break; some guys have had a drink or two. It's this dusky part of the day and everybody’s relaxed. I remember that the ambience of that time of day was all through everything we played."

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