After a hiatus in 2015, the Boston-based all-star fiddle ensemble Childsplay is back with a new lead vocalist, Irish singer Karan Casey, and later this month will head out on a four-city tour that winds up with two shows at Somerville Theater in Davis Square on Nov. 20. The group also will play at Harwich Center in Cape Cod, New York City ,and Portland, Maine.
Childsplay comprises two dozen or so musicians – many from Boston or elsewhere in New England – performing fiddle music mainly from Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Scandinavian, French Canadian, and American folk traditions. All the fiddlers use violins created by Cambridge resident Bob Childs, who also plays in the ensemble and serves as artistic director as well as its namesake. Although most of Childsplay’s participants have active, full-time musical careers, they gather almost every fall for a few weeks to rehearse and present concerts in the Northeast.
The ensemble has recorded six CDs – the most recent was “As the Crow Flies” in 2013 – and two concert DVDs: “Fiddlers, Fiddles and Fiddlemaker,” also released in 2013, has been widely broadcast on PBS.
While Childsplay’s history stretches back more than 20 years, it is over the past decade or so that the group has followed a consistent organizational format that includes a featured lead singer. Casey – a former member of the band Solas who went on to forge a successful solo career – becomes the third vocalist for Childsplay, and first non-New Englander to take the microphone: First was Newton-born Aoife O’Donovan, followed by Vermont native Lissa Schneckenburger, who will now contribute backing vocals as well as fiddle.
The face of Childsplay is not constant. Some regulars might opt out in a given year because of scheduling conflicts or other factors and are replaced by new or returning members. A new featured vocalist also marks a significant transition. Yet for all the changes Childsplay may undergo, Childs sees plenty of continuity.
“I tend to think of Childsplay as evolutionary, marked by phases,” he explains. “There’s a period of three to four years that is built around making a CD or DVD, as was the case with Aoife. Then Aoife moved on, and Lissa took the role of lead vocalist, bringing along her particular style and repertoire. Meanwhile, of course, other members of Childsplay were contributing fresh ideas for sets and arrangements and ultimately, this all led to another CD and DVD. So then Karan agreed to join us, and that should mean another cycle where we accumulate more new material to along with what we’ve built up over the years.
“But what remains unchanged is the core sound – that blend of fiddles, along with other instruments like guitar, flute, harp, cello, bass, banjo and so on – and, most importantly, Childsplay’s mission: Building a bridge between our audiences and the rich legacy of traditional music and dance, as well as bringing to life the human traditions of creative expression, cooperation, and community.”
A Waterford native with a background that includes classical and jazz as well as traditional Irish music, Casey recorded three albums with Solas before striking out on her own. She has released six solo albums. including 2014’s “Two More Hours,” which consisted of her own compositions and incorporated jazz, blues and R&B. Her 2010 duet with former Solas bandmate John Doyle, “Exiles Return,” was widely acclaimed. More recently, she has toured with Maura O’Connell and Lúnasa, and performed in A Stór Mo Chroí, a collaboration with John Spillane, Lumiere and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.
“I am very excited to be joining Childsplay,” says Casey. “I know a lot of the musicians already and I really admire their music. I also love the idea of the whole collective and enjoy collaborating with people at this level – it’s very creative and exciting for me to be working out new arrangements for the songs. I can’t wait to get there and hear it all.”
The 2016 edition of Childsplay includes Boston-area and Massachusetts-based fiddlers such as Laurel Martin, Hanneke Cassel, Katie McNally, Amanda Cavanaugh, Bonnie Bewick and Sheila Falls, as well as others from farther afield like Steve Hickman, Naomi Morse, and a Maine mother-daughter pair, Ellen and Molly Gawler. Non-fiddlers include local residents Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle, accordion), Ariel Friedman (cello) and Kathleen Guilday (harp), along with Keith Murphy (guitar, piano), Ralph Gordon (double bass) and Mark Roberts (flute, banjo). Dancers Kieran Jordan and Kevin Doyle also are part of the ensemble this year.
The choice of Casey as the new Childsplay vocalist was in some ways a departure, in that the band reached out beyond its immediate music community. But then again, as Childs notes, geography doesn’t exactly define community these days – and certainly not in music.
“I was already familiar with Karan because of her time with Solas,” he says. “And of course, she’s been through Boston before, such as when she was with ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.’ Karan’s also worked with Aoife, and in fact it was Aoife who suggested her.
“To my mind, the relationship between voice and violin is critical when it comes to singing with Childsplay, because obviously the violin is at the core of the group – and the violin has often been described as the musical instrument that most closely matches the human voice. So for Childsplay, a singing voice has to have a certain soulful quality, a timbre that is right for the violin. Aoife and Lissa certainly did, and I really believe Karan does, too.”
Childsplay has been around long enough to become a full-fledged non-profit with ancillary activities such as instructive workshops and classroom educational opportunities. The Childsplay website [childsplay.org] includes instructional videos by Bewick, Cassel, Falls, and Schneckenburger, and essays on various aspects of music by Childs and other group members.
On a more personal level, Childs says, the progression of years has brought a familial dynamic to Childsplay, in some respects quite literally – for example, Graham DeZarn, who’s been part of the ensemble for the past several years, is the son of a Childsplay charter member, Joe DeZarn.
“It’s been wonderful to see people like Lissa and Hanneke [Cassel] become established performers and teachers, and serve as mentors for young musicians like Katie [McNally] and Amanda [Cavanaugh] – who have now themselves become established performers and teachers, and are already mentors for the next generation of fiddlers. It speaks to that whole concept of community we talk about with Childsplay.”
In fact, Childs says Childsplay can be a salve for its members during tough times – and hopes the group’s concerts might have the same effect on audiences.
“Let’s face it: The last couple of years have been pretty rough for many of us, given what’s going on in the world,” he says. “In times like this, coming together can be reassuring. With Childsplay you have a group of musicians engaged in the creative process, trying to realize a very positive vision – it’s something that we find invigorating and affirming, and hope people who come out to see us will, too.”
For information on Childsplay, including links to concert ticket sales, go to childsplay.org.