Early Music as Theater: The Alehouse Sessions

by Anne E. Johnson

The first clue that The Alehouse Sessions show would not be your typical Baroque music concert came when an assistant laid out eight glasses of beer on a high round table onstage. Since we were at the performance venue SubCulture on Bleecker St. in Manhattan, you can be sure it was fine craft beer from their bar. But still.

Members of the Barokksolistene performing The Alehouse Sessions

In the September 25 issue of Copper Magazine, I’d reviewed the new album by the Norwegian string ensemble Barokksolistene (you can see the review here), led by Bjarte Eike.  It featured 17th-century music — mostly English — played as you might have heard it in a tavern when it was new. I went on and on about how much fun The Alehouse Sessions (Rubicon Classics) must be in its live version. When I got an invitation to hear them live on Oct. 11, I was thrilled.

All sense of time and history dissipated as soon as the men came onstage, stalking around each other as they played: there were baroque violins, viola, double bass, vihuelas (early guitars), and a harmonium. One of them danced hornpipes in his old leather shoes. One of them sang Henry Purcell’s arch, repeating melodies in a way that turned them into down-to-earth ballads. They cracked jokes — canned and corny, but then, barroom humor is not famous for subtlety. They played the hell out of Purcell and Playford, Scandinavian and English folk tunes, and even some Spanish songs. Even the classical pieces were freely arranged with new composed and improvised accompaniment.

One has to wonder: is this a trend? Everything about the experience was a sign of the times. We people of the 21st century crave engagement and visuals. And refreshments. There’s a bar right next to the seating area at SubCulture, in the same room as the performance. Good or bad, the age of sitting in absolute silence and watching musicians move nothing but their fingers may be coming to an end.

Bjarte Eike leads The Alehouse Sessions. (Photo: Matthew Long)

There’s an excellent argument to be made — which the band does make — that historical precedent exists for this kind of musical experience. The album and show Alehouse Sessions takes its name from the Cromwell-era practice of English musicians, out of work thanks to strict Puritan laws banning theatrical performances, meeting in taverns to play together. Eike laid the lore on pretty thick, claiming there was a traceable line from those pub sessions to the invention of concert halls. But what do historical details matter if everyone is swept away and having a great time? The music brought us joy, and that’s historical truth.

The space was friendly and relaxed. The music was vibrant and relevant. Thanks to the Alehouse boys, historically informed performance — HIP — is now actually hip, and even a little bit hipster. The barkeep did have a very nice mustache.