Session Americana still finds its strength in numbers
It all started around a table. An accident, you could call it. In 2003, Ry Cavanaugh and Billy Beard had just finished a set at Toad, the Porter Square club with a capacity of 62.
When the next act didn’t show up, Cavanaugh got an idea. He jumped onstage, pulled the microphones out of their stands, and duct-taped them to the table. He was conjuring the feel of a traditional Irish jam session or perhaps the family parlor room. A bunch of musicians were in the house, and they banded together and sang songs they all knew.
“It transformed this sort of rowdy weekend night vibe into the most intimate performance,” Beard says. “People sat behind us, and the people seated at the bar actually turned around and sat on the bar so they could get up high and see the table.”
They were on to something. By the end of that session, the whole bar was in thrall with the camaraderie, but also with the perception that there was no wall between artist and audience.
Such were the humble beginnings for a band that has become an institution, an important and colorful patch of the local music scene’s fabric. For more than a decade, Session Americana has been a revolving cast of players, most of them local, always in the spirit of community and collaboration.
By design, the lineup is forever in flux; it depends on who’s in town and available, not to mention the numerous special guests. Cavanaugh, Beard, Dinty Child, and Jim Fitting are considered the “core four,” bolstered by a field guide to roots-music luminaries: Jon Bistline, Kimon Kirk, Laura Cortese, Dietrich Strause, Jefferson Hamer, Alec Spiegelman, Adam Moss, Anaïs Mitchell, Zachariah Hickman, Charlie Rose, Duke Levine, Eliza Carthy, and Jennifer Kimball.
Their live shows are legendary and frequent, featuring a mix of originals and covers of songs turned inside out with fresh, down-home arrangements. You might hear a Prince tune, but you could also hear ones by Emmylou Harris, the Beastie Boys, and hometown hero Dennis Brennan. With songs swerving into country, blues, soul, jazz, and rock, let’s just call the band a master class in Americana.
Anchored by that aforementioned table, the stage setup is cozy, with the musicians clustered close and getting up often to swap places, instruments, and lead vocals. And yet they still manage to get comfortable and ease into the material.
After their recent string of buzzed-about appearances at Folk Alliance, the annual industry showcase, something is decidedly in the air for Session Americana. There’s a tangible possibility that the ensemble is on the cusp of something bigger. And they’re hungry and ready for it.
Session has a terrific new album called “Pack Up the Circus,” coproduced with Mitchell. It’s their crowning achievement on record, a focused and vibrant statement on what it means to be an artist who’s in it for the long haul. The group celebrates the release with two shows at Club Passim in Cambridge on Saturday, before heading out on a European tour that will take the circus through the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and beyond.
(The band will also play a private show at Lizard Lounge on Friday for friends and Kickstarter supporters who raised nearly $14,000 to fund the new album.)
Over pints of Guinness — and one rye Manhattan, up — Cavanaugh, Beard, and Child recently reflected on Session Americana’s incredible run and what’s hopefully next. What follows is an edited oral history culled from that hourlong conversation.
Cavanaugh: If you think about the history of Session Americana, it’s really a history of tables, a series of tables. As the tables evolve, the band evolves as well. Who’s sitting around the table is important, but the table itself is important. Everybody goes, “Who’s in Session Americana? I’ve seen you guys, but what is it and how does it work?” I was talking about it with Zack Hickman, and he said, “You know, it’s really about the table. The table is the show.”
Beard: We knew confidently that it would work in all the places we play around here. When we wound up in Sweden, the first really big show we did in Stockholm was an outdoor festival on a big stage in front of maybe 2,000 people. It was unbelievable: You could have heard a pin drop. It was our collapsible table.
Child: I think we’ve really honed the lean-in, and the table definitely helps with that.
Beard: We did two years of Sunday nights at Toad, and it got stupid. There were lines down the block, and it was loud. I remember sitting onstage three feet from Ry and having to shout, “Hey, let’s do this song.” It got to be too much, so we decided to start playing [at Lizard Lounge]. And then when we got here, those shows started to sell out, too.
Cavanaugh: People sometimes sit in with us and say, “Oh, I want you to do this in our [venue]” or, “Can’t you collaborate with so-and-so?” And I’m like, “You don’t understand. These are our people. We have history with these people. This didn’t just happen. It’s family.” Luckily my persona protects us from people who want to play with us but we’re not interested in. (All three laugh.)
Child: We really want it to be about the sound of the voices and the instruments. We’ve held on to that. We’re not plugging things in other than the bass. It’s still about: What are you doing over there and how am I going to work with that? That’s what Zack [Hickman] said the first time he played with us: “Bands always talk about wanting to listen to each other more, but you guys really just do it.” It seems really loose and easy from the outside, but it’s very worked on.
Beard: We’re not an open mike. It’s very curated.
Child: We all have this experience of playing in a lot of different bands, but this is the only band I’ve ever been in where I can literally say to anybody, “Just come. You’ll like it.” And then they do come, and they come back with their friends. They’re like, “You gotta hear this.”
Beard: This band appeals to real people and did so early on. We have true fans who come to get away from their lives for a night. We see familiar faces, but there are nights when I look around and think, I don’t know who the hell these people are or how they even know about us. I get emotional about it, but for me it’s a very satisfying thing, to feel like you’re bringing joy to people’s lives.
Cavanaugh: It’s easy to look back and think how different it was, but I will say there’s a thread that remains from the early days: It’s about community. We’ve always wanted to make records and play concerts where we pull people in, and this new record is very much in that spirit. Everyone brought in their own songs with ideas about arrangements. We control now who we call more than we used to. (Laughs.) Community is still important to this band.
Beard: Every place we’ve played has forced us to go to the next level. And that was part of our thinking with this new record. It’s one thing to have fun, but you also have to be good. The collective musicianship of this band is amazing to tap into. Our collective decision to hire Anaïs to coproduce the record was interesting, because it pointed to an evolution of everyone writing and bringing in their own songs. We had her come on board as a song shepherd, which was really helpful. She was great.
Child: It’s been interesting to describe the new album when I’m talking to radio and media people. Our [original] unwritten rule was that we weren’t playing our own songs because we were all from other bands. They wrote Session Americana on the board outside, but we didn’t know if that was a band or just a name. We realized pretty soon that we were definitely a band, and I think that’s especially apparent on this new one.
Beard: For the new album, we had a band meeting about what role a producer would play. We all compiled a short list of people we thought would be good. With Anaïs, who had never been a producer before, we had a shared history that went back a long way. And every single person in the band was floored by “Hadestown” [her 2010 album], flabbergasted by how great that record was. “Pack Up the Circus” was certainly more thought out, and there was a collective focus on the song selection and process.
Child: We were all in the studio together, 10 of us at any one time. It wasn’t like four guys recording something and then thinking, “Let’s get this person or that person.” There was a group-creation thing that happened in the moment, which is a progression from our other records.
Cavanaugh: Honestly, the biggest difference was Anaïs. She was a great guide.
Beard: You know the thing I love about this record? Thematically, what these songs are dealing with is so different to me. Some might look at the album title and think there’s a finality to it, like packing up the circus and going home. But we look at it as, let’s pack up the circus and take it on the road.
Cavanaugh: A lot of it is very self-referential. It’s about being an artist. Not to be too morbid, but it’s about death and growth and life in the sense of catching it. It’s also maybe about disappointment. Jim’s “Time Winds Me Up” has a lot of commentary on that, how we are our ages. We’re not young. I feel like we’re at the edge of a storm. We don’t have that 20-something feeling that the whole world is in front of you. We have the sense that, “Oh, my God, we have got to do this now. Life is short. Let’s wrestle with this stuff and make it happen.” We’ll let it take us wherever it wants to take us.