You sneak up on Session Americana. Oh, not literally, as you can discover them in an ever-widening circle of clubs and festivals, three studio records and one live set, and on a new, as-yet-untitled 10-song release due this spring (listen to early mixes of "Easier " and "Goldmine" below). But, after nearly ten years, Session Americana still feels stumbled-upon: every show seems a welcome surprise, not least to them. Find them and you happen upon a long-running song swap among old friends, veteran musicians facing each other over a round bar table, exchanging instruments as quickly as quips.
The sensation of sneaking up on Session Americana was heightened by a recent stop at Brooklyn Rod and Gun. Ostensibly a private club devoted to outdoor pursuits, Rod and Gun's unmarked door opens to a close-enough replica of your parent's rec room in the 70s, complete with fishing maps, old books and mags, and a record player on the shelf. At the end of a long communal table, Session Americana gathered around a round cocktail table, a suitcase-based drum set nestled close by one side, a pump organ by the other.
That table is central to the story. After a 2003 set at Toad in Cambridge, MA, drummer and musical ringmaster Billy Beard, guitarist Ry Cavanaugh and friends broke down the stage to await what turned out to be a no-show acoustic set. Ry had an idea. Out came acoustic guitars and favorite songs. The audience drifted back in and stayed. "I took a pair of brushes, played against the wall, and we just started playing whatever songs came to mind," Beard told me. "Country tunes, pop tunes, originals, whatever. The bar was transformed into one of the most intimate musical experiences I ever had. People sitting at the bar turned around to sit on the bar, people in the back of the room moved forward and surrounded our group, nearly on top of us." The Session was replicated to growing acclaim. Word got out that some of Boston's favorite musicians - former members of Treat Her Right, Face to Face, The The, Resophonics, Patty Griffin's band - were hanging out and playing every Sunday night. It soon moved to larger quarters. The founding table has been replicated with ambient mics added for the acoustic instruments. A vocal mic gets pushed back forth. The table focuses the experience and it always comes with.
As at most Session shows, the core group at Rod and Gun - Beard (drums/vocals), Kimon Kirk (bass/vocals), Cavanaugh (guitar, mandocello, vocals), Jim Fitting (harmonica/vocals) and Dinty Child (fiddle, banjo, guitar, accordion, keyboards, vocals) - was augmented by friends and fellow travelers; for the two-night stand at Rod and Gun, semi-regular-Sessioneer Jimmy Ryan joined the circle on mandolin, and guitarist Mark Spencer (Son Volt, Laura Cantrell), Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still) and Anais Mitchell came by, too.
The four new songs I've heard (especially Cavanaugh's "Easier") test the limits of the "Americana" half of the group's name. While, together and individually, these guys have long used the material of traditional American song, for just as long they've put it to decidedly non-traditional use. Just as an Irish seisiun cloaks virtuosity with hearty informality, the anything-could-happen feel of a Session show depends on craft that's not accidental or easily-won. For example, Fitting's harmonica is the engine of many Session songs, and while that humble mouth organ can too often be an easy grace note that signifies "blues" or "backwoods," here it lends real emotional depth as well as occasional humor. I listen to Session Americana with the same attention as Shearwater or The Low Anthem: the inspiration of past tradition given fresh interpretation.
Session Americana will be back at Rod and Gun on April 6; LA and the Pacific Northwest will get a visit the first two weeks of May. In the meantime, let the new songs below sneak up on you (and I've made a four-song Spotify playlist (Session Americana) from their last release, Diving for Gold - it includes another Ry Cavanaugh song, "You and Me," heartworn and somehow uplifting. I recently find myself playing it several times a day).