A solemn sprite with fiery red hair
draws back the bow above an Irish fiddle.
Marybeth McQueen, 9, begins to play a melody as pub goers at
McGonigel's Mucky Duck look up from their pints of stout and ale, first
curious, then entranced.
A dozen respectful musicians — adults and teenagers — wield
accordions, bodhrans, flutes, pennywhistles and fiddles in
The sliver of a smile that signals the end of Marybeth's contribution
is met with big cheers, raucous whistles and thunderous applause.
"She's going to whip her daddy's butt in 10 years," an observer says.
"More like two years," someone argues.
Gregory McQueen, formerly of the band Clandestine, now a fiddler in
Remnant, doesn't dispute that. "No doubt, whether it'll be two years or
10 years, she'll definitely do it, and I'll be thrilled when she does,"
he says later.
Marybeth is following in the tradition
of Irish-music apprenticeship, a phenomenon occurring naturally in Irish
pubs and replicated at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Older, more experienced
musicians pass on folk-music traditions to young adults, teenagers and
It's Wednesday, traditional Irish Session night with no cover, pint
specials and anywhere from five to 20 drop-in musicians.
But it's kicked up a notch this evening in late February, billed as a
pre-St. Patrick's Day event. Irish dancers all dolled up in their
brilliantly colored regalia jig into motion. Owners Rusty Andrews and
his wife, the former Teresa McGonigel, are handing out lighted shamrock
necklaces. A man clad in a kilt slides into a booth.
Regular Georgie Hockman, a self-employed bookkeeper, has donned an
iridescent green wig, in a stylish bob.
Hockman's neighbor Mary Marong introduced her to the Irish Session.
Tonight they're holding court in a comfortable booth in the back,
chatting with passers-by. They know everyone onstage and off.?Marong has
been showing up for 16 years, drawn by the music and the convivial
spirit. "You follow the good musicians like they are the Pied Piper,"
she says. "And it's like Cheers. You get to know somebody sitting next
to you week after week, and they become friends."
Many of the participating musicians are
fans of American acoustic music who've discovered its Celtic roots.
"They're not here for applause or anything," Andrews says. "Sometimes
they'll have their backs to the audience."
Rex Shaver, an administrative-law judge, has played with the informal
group since 1975, when it started as a fiddle session in somebody's
house. He plays mandolin and bodhran (pronounced boron).
"We don't restrict anybody," Shaver says. "Sometimes people of lower
skill levels sit in for a while and decide they can't keep up. Then they
come back later after they practice."
E.J. Jones learned to play the Irish flute as a teenager during the
session. He returns to repay the favor, helping out the new crop of
"When I started coming to the Irish Session, I didn't know any Irish
music," he says. "I just played Scottish bagpipe. I played in the
audience. I didn't get up onstage until I'd been playing a couple of
"If you don't know how to play, they'll ask you to play quietly."
He's not the only Irish musician who grew up at the Duck.
"It's a good place for all the different ages to mix," says Jones,
who is teaching Marybeth McQueen to play Scottish bagpipe. "Generations
interact pretty seamlessly."
Gregory McQueen says that's why he has no qualms about bringing his
"I was in the band [Clandestine] up until she was 5," McQueen says,
"and she considered the Mucky Duck her second home. She was used to
watching me play there.
"It's a good environment. Some people look askance at me when I say
I'm going to a bar together with my daughter, but that particular one is
extremely friendly and open."
After the session outgrew a house, Andrews says, it moved to a
succession of pubs — the Parlor, Rudyard's, the Ale House and the old
Red Lion. The couple became interested in Celtic music when they managed
the Red Lion, a now defunct restaurant on South Main owned by Teresa's
family. When the Red Lion closed, the session followed the Andrewses to
the Duck, which opened June 1, 1990.
McQueen was relieved to find the scene when he moved from California
He had feared Houston might be a cultural desert. "I was thrilled to
find an incredible Celtic scene in Houston based around the session," he
said. "It's a free flow of music. It's an incredible resource if you
like that kind of music and you're trying to learn it."
The Duck's setup is as authentic as possible, but it's not letter
"We're not really supposed to be on a
stage," Shaver explains. "If you were in Ireland, we'd be sitting around
And only in Ireland do sessions achieve their full expression, says
Jones of the Rogues, who plays the Irish pipes and flute. "In Ireland,
really anybody can go and sing a song," Jones says. "It's a fellowship
with people in the room, and part of it is playing music, singing songs
At the Duck, musicians cooperate to avoid cacophony. If someone else
wants to play the drum, Shaver switches to mandolin for a while. The
unofficial rule is only one bodhran at a time. Probably not a bad idea,
since bodhran, in Gaelic, means thunder or deafening. It's a shallow,
hand-held drum played by striking the single drumhead with alternate
knobbed ends of a beater.
Jones, formerly with Clandestine, says anyone can become an Irish
musician with a very simple instrument. It's called a pennywhistle.
"They're considered a legitimate Irish instrument, not just a toy,"
Jones says. "They are still really cheap. You could buy a really good
whistle for $5 and go to any session anywhere in the world, and you will
probably find a good handful of tunes that everyone knows in common."
Irish music is all about melodies, Jones says.
"Often, you're putting three really catchy tunes together, which is
different from pop music, which is really just one melody spaced out
with all this filler," he says. "With Irish music you're getting all
melody, all the time."
A wide variety of occupations is represented, too. Most of the
fiddlers, drummers and pipers are not professional musicians.
"I'll be sitting next to a judge and a doctor and an anesthesiologist
and someone from NASA," Jones says.
The Duck, a cozy listening room, is often quiet other nights of the
week when folk musicians are performing. Wednesdays often are an
"I like it when people are carousing and carrying on. It makes it
like you're at a party," Jones says. "People are eating and drinking and
flirting, and music is just one part of it."
Charming as an ordinary Wednesday can be, the session to end all
sessions takes place every year on St. Patrick's Day. USA Today deems
the Duck one of the top 10 places to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the
It kicks off at noon when Jones, wearing a kilt, climbs on the roof
and starts playing the pipes. He repeats the solo performance at 5 p.m.
The pub, the deck and a special tent fill quickly.
"Grandma and Grandpa, 8-year-olds, the whole family come," Andrews
says. "And they don't go back to work. There used to be a lull after
lunch, but now, especially if it's on a Friday, people say (to their
bosses), 'I'm Irish, it's my holiday, see you on Monday.'