When the best Irish musicians get together to practice, it might as well be a concert. And some of Kansas City’s most talented players now have a regular place to do that in front of an audience.
On a recent Sunday night at Prospero’s Books, while customers thumbed through used paperbacks and lounged in armchairs, the sound of music drifted down from the second floor, where a couple dozen people were watching flute player Turlach Boylan and guitar player Davey Mathias.
Boylan comes from a musical family in County Derry, Ireland. Back in the 1980s, he was an All-Ireland champion flute player. After living in Texas for quite awhile, he’s spent the past decade in Kansas City.
Even though he’s lived most of his adult life in the United States, Boylan said he still thinks of Ireland as home.
“Playing Irish music, for me, as an immigrant, is a way of maintaining touch with my roots, not forgetting that I’m Irish,” Boylan said. “For me, personally, it’s a source of a lot of joy. And sometimes, in hard times, it’s a source of comfort.”
Since Prospero's Books opened in 1997, co-owner Will Leatham estimates he's hosted a couple thousand readings, spoken-words events and musical performances by folk singers, jazz singers and rockers. But his real love is Irish music. So for the past few months, Leatham has made his own contribution to the city’s Irish music scene, which has grown increasingly lively since the Irish Center of Kansas City moved into Drexel Hall, a few blocks away.
“I’m tired of traveling around the country trying to find what I want to hear,” said Leatham. “I’d much rather just do it here. We’ve got the talent pool.”
Since last December, Leatham has invited musicians to get together in his book-filled concert space upstairs. At the core of the traditional Irish music scene is an informal musical event called a session. Sessions are one way to share and learn new tunes.
“They’ll literally know three, four hundred tunes and they’ll come in and play, and it just happens what happens,” Leatham said. “It’s fun.”
Boylan said gatherings like these are a way to connect with other musicians.
“It’s not so much about performance,” said Boylan. “It’s a conversation. It’s a way of sharing it. And in a good session, not only is everyone playing but they’re listening to each other.”
Kansas City musician Leslie Jones plays guitar, mandolin, banjo and the Irish Bouzouki using the stage name Eddie Edwards. Jones says his first experience playing Irish music was the beginning of an obsession.
“I played in my first Irish band in college, and I just got invited to strum my guitar along. I had no idea what I was doing,” said Jones. “So years later, I decided I was really going to try to learn it so I got very obsessive. I only listened to Irish music for about two and a half, maybe three years. I mean, I wouldn’t listen to other things. I really wouldn’t.”
These days Jones knows hundreds of songs. He hits all the Irish sessions around town, at the Irish Center and places like Brown’s Irish Market, Conroy’s Public House and Restless Spirits in the Northland.
“I used to keep track of how many tunes I knew, and a very good friend of mine said, 'Well, when you hit about 500, you stop counting,'” said Jones. “So, that’s true. You hit about 500 and you just stop counting all together.”
Local guitar player Skip Voitik was in the audience for the recent Sunday concert. He said he came to hear the music and absorb the atmosphere.
“The neighborhood just comes out for everything that happens here,” Voitik said. “It’s a fun place to play. It’s a fun place to listen. And something great happens at these sessions.”
For Leatham, the musicians and the audience, it's about finding a group of like-minded people.
“I’m already a person out of time,” said Leatham. “I mean, I deal in books. I like Celtic music, the community of it, the fact that it’s the old ways. I mean it’s just buried in traditions that are just literally that are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.”
But there is one aspect of the music that appeals to him.
“And there’s a little bit of rebellion in there, which I like," Leatham said with a laugh. “And in these political days, a little rebellion is fine with me.”
An Irish Session is scheduled for 7-10 p.m. on Saturday August 12, at Prospero's Books, 1800 West 39th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-531-9673. Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.