Sometimes the queue for the Ruby Sessions is so long that it snakes down the stairs of Doyle’s pub and out the door around past the old plaque on the wall that says “Good times are coming/Be they ever so far away” and down into the dark and puddles of Fleet Street.
If you find yourself that far back, your chances of getting in are very far away indeed. These are the nights when word has leaked out into the world that a ‘Very Special Guest’ will be taking to the mic of the renowned live music night, and for the price of a six euro charity donation, you too could be part of the intimate gathering that surrounds the candlelit stage. Ed Sheeran, Damien Rice, Paulo Nutini, The Corrs and countless others have graced it over the years.
Since its inaugural night on April the 13th 1999, the Ruby Sessions has become an iconic staple of Dublin’s live music scene. The brainchild of Niall Muckian, who also founded Rubyworks Records, which looks after acts like Hozier and Wyvern Lingo, The Ruby Sessions is emceed and run by Conor Donovan who books the acts from the hundred emails he receives every week.
Acts like Paddy Casey and Glen Hansard began to support the night.
Niall started The Ruby Sessions when he realised there was a need for an alternative outlet for singer-songwriters. He chose Tuesdays because it’s “that gentle day of the week” and decided to go for “more structured approach to it where you’re booked in advance so you can let your mates know that you’re playing, and that brings an audience. We’ll do the publicity and put out press releases and promote you. So it’s a more of a stepping stone to get to Whelan’s, which was the core of it.”
It was also important that it be a charity night. “Once you remove money, then the ego bit is removed as well. Everyone’s doing it because they think it’s a great thing to do for the charity and they know they’ll get a good listening audience.”
The big names may be happy to play it now, but the Ruby Sessions was by no means an immediate success. “I was doing the door. I was the sound guy. Hardly anyone came.” But slowly things started to change, and bigger acts came in. “Damien Rice would start coming in and playing it. He was trialling a new album. That was a sign it had something worthwhile. As soon as the bigger acts started coming in, the audience started becoming a bit more regular.” Acts like Paddy Casey and Glen Hansard began to support the night.
After almost nineteen years, the night has hosted some of the biggest acts in the world
Then came a Ruby Sessions album and two nationwide tours, which built up the brand. “Ireland is the home of the singer-songwriter, and the Ruby Sessions has created this space where it’s an anchor in that scene. When major labels are looking to establish the credentials of an act like Paolo Nutini, they’ll have them play here.”
It also became something of a foundation stone for Niall’s venture, Rubyworks Records. His first major foray into music management was with Damien Rice who he met through the Ruby Sessions. “With O, he wasn’t with a label, and I said ‘I’d book your gigs, I’ll manufacture the records, and I’ll coordinate with the PR’. It became a smash.”
Conor Donovan is a fixture on Dublin’s live music scene, having played drums for years with Damien Rice and Jack L. He also takes to the stage every Tuesday night to emcee The Ruby Sessions. A self-professed show man, Conor has “no problems being the centre of attention. In all the years, I have managed to get Niall to the stage twice to get a round of applause,” he laughs.
The Ruby Sessions stood out because it was “more structured than other open mic nights. We wanted to make it a show, with an emcee who is telling you a bit about the acts, where you can catch them next and also telling you what’s going on around the city,” Conor says.
After almost nineteen years, the night has hosted some of the biggest acts in the world, but it remains faithful to its origins. “Four original acts come in each week and play a short set to a guaranteed crowd in a small intimate candlelit setting. It’s a 100% listening audience, full of music lovers and while we started off as a singer songwriter night, I suppose now we’d call ourselves an acoustic music club.”
Conor is reluctant to settle on any one particular highlight. “Ed Sheeran was a highlight, James Vincent McMorrow… But hands down, the best night ever was when Billy Steinberg played. You don’t know who he is; I didn’t know who he was when I got the call. He’s in his late sixties, and he’s a songwriter, and he wrote the soundtrack to all our childhoods: Like a Virgin, True Colours, Eternal Flame, I Drove All Night… The little 5’6 older man came in swinging a guitar and played hit after hit.”
it’s fundamental that people support live music
So did they ever consider cashing in and moving to a bigger venue? “We’ve been offered to move it, we’ve been told to put the prices up. There are very few things that last seventeen or eighteen years and people have a lot of love for it. I think we wouldn’t have lasted that amount of time if we had capitalised on it. It would lose the magic of the night.”
Will the Ruby Sessions ever run its course? In 2009, Conor and Niall sat down and made a wish list of sixteen of Ireland’s biggest acts “hoping that we’d get five or six of them to come and celebrate our tenth anniversary. All sixteen came back.” Afterwards, they had a serious conversation about “whether to end it on a high. We decided it still had a place. As long as it’s still part of a healthy music scene in Dublin City, we’ll keep going. We love seeing new acts coming in and blowing us away. It’s still about promoting up and coming original music.”
Given the recent dip in record sales, it’s fundamental that people support live music, Conor says. “I always say it when I’m signing off for the night and saying thanks for coming out and all. Because we’re internationally known now, and people genuinely come from all over the world, I always say it’s so important when you go back to your own city, to support nights like this. We have great infrastructure and management and an abundance of talent; we just need people to go to gigs.”