It’s another landmark year for the Boston-based all-star fiddle ensemble Childsplay, which heads out on its annual tour this month on the heels of a new CD, “As the Crow Flies,” and concert DVD, “Fiddlers, Fiddles and Fiddlemaker.”
The group 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 its artistic director.
Childsplay will be in concert at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington on Dec. 5 and 8, with stops at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford on Dec. 6 and the Portland, Me., High School Auditorium on Dec. 7.
The ensemble’s history stretches back more than two decades, and its roster of current and past members – including not only fiddlers but also other instrumentalists – is the essence of quality musicianship, including among others: Laurel Martin, Hanneke Cassel, Steve Hickman, Sheila Falls, Mary Lea, Mark Simos, Lissa Schneckenburger, Naomi Morse, Pete Sutherland, Sam Amidon, Joe and Graham DeZarn, Dave Langford, Amanda Cavanaugh, Katie McNally, Kathleen Guilday, Mark Roberts, Aoife O’Donovan, Shannon Heaton, Keith Murphy, Ariel Friedman, Ralph Gordon, Pierre Chartrand, Kieran Jordan, and Nic Gareiss.
Childsplay’s ranks change a little every year, as some members opt out because of scheduling conflicts or other factors and are replaced by new or returning members, but over time the group has built up a durable cohesiveness, says Childs.
“What I see – and I think this is evident on the new CD and DVD – is a kind of maturity to the band. We don’t have exactly the same people year in and year out, but there is enough consistency where we can adapt to changes readily and all the while keep building on what’s been done in the past. For me, Childsplay’s signature sound is our arrangements, and that has evolved in a remarkable and satisfying way.”
It’s become axiomatic to describe most any organizational entity, musical, business or otherwise, as “a family,” but to hear Childs talk, the term seems very appropriate for Childsplay, especially given its longevity. As some members of the Childsplay family have moved on to other projects, interests or phases of life, representatives from a new generation – like McNally and Cavanaugh, who were barely out of diapers when Childsplay began – have come into the fold. And those who have sustained their involvement in the ensemble have continued to hone their own musical development, all the while experiencing those personal milestones – such as marriage and parenthood – that shape one’s overall life perspective.
One of the most important recent changes for Childsplay has been the departure of O’Donovan as lead vocalist, a position that has now been filled by Schneckenburger. It’s not exactly the biggest leap, since she had backed up, and occasionally spelled, O’Donovan in the past. Still, the Childsplay repertoire encompasses a variety of styles and genres, which requires a singer to be equally versatile and convincing.
Schneckenburger is more than equal to the task. Versed as she is in folk and traditional music, Schneckenburger – whose voice has a sharper definition to it than O’Donovan’s gauzier quality – can cross over to contemporary, even pop: She has, after all, recorded one CD of folk songs from New England, and another of pop tunes like “I Think I Need a New Heart,” “Crimson and Clover” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” On “As the Crow Flies,” she essays a sprightly Irish song, “Hawk and Crow” (avian commentary on the ways of love), the stately mournful American traditional classic “Dear Companion,” a rousing Uncle Dave Macon composition “Don’t You Get Weary Children,” Shannon Heaton’s sublime “Starry Lullaby” and – perhaps most impressively – “Leave No Millionaire Behind,” a vivid, semi-journalistic meditation by Pierce Woodward on the corrupting influence of money.
Childs’s praise for the group’s trademark arrangements is borne out by the evidence on “As the Crow Flies,” which contains some of Childsplay’s most ambitious work yet. And at the top of the list is the “Child Suite,” a Keith Murphy masterpiece (he wrote as well as arranged the four tunes) that is full of countermelodies and contrasting simultaneous rhythmic patterns, with the focus on Heaton’s unfailingly superb flute alongside the lead fiddles of Graham DeZarn and Sam Amidon. Gradually, Murphy’s piano and the rest of the band coalesce behind the trio as the set moves along to a concluding reel. All told, it’s breathtaking, in concept and execution.
“We take a few weeks to get together and practice in earnest before the tour,” says Child, “but, obviously, there’s a certain incubation period before then, and I talk to various people about ideas for sets. Keith said that his inspiration for the suite came from the nature of dreams, though he really didn’t know where it was going at first – this was something very new for him. But he found that unique space between fiddle, folk, and a whole other kind of music. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
In fact, a substantial amount of Childsplay’s material is composed by its members. Besides the “Child Suite,” Murphy contributes “The St. Croix Jig” and a triptych of Celtic-flavored fun, comprising a Scottish-style strathspey fused with a jig and two Irish-style polkas. “As the Crow Flies” also includes two Heaton tunes – the mystical “Bow for Rama” and the sweet-toned “Maybe I Might” (which appears in “Starry Lullaby”) – Schneckenburger’s menacingly beautiful “Katrina” (named for the hurricane), a bright slip jig by Sheila Falls drolly titled “Slips and Falls,” and from Hanneke Cassel, a characteristically spiritual waltz (“The Last Alleluia”) and a reel set that blends the gritty “Lianne MacLean’s Revenge” with the euphoric “Catchy Bug” (which at one point pauses for a bluegrass-like cello break).
It’s also worth noting that the title track is supplied in the form of a reel penned by legendary Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, who produced the CD. “For the Childsplay CDs [“As the Crow Flies” is the band’s sixth], I’ve recruited people who have never produced an album for someone else,” says Childs. “What happens is, that person becomes a big part of the process, and that was definitely the case with Liz. She commands such respect, as a musician and as a person, and everyone responded to her so well.”
“As the Crow Flies” stands on its own, but “Fiddlers, Fiddles and Fiddlemaker” – filmed at their 2012 concert in the Zeiterion – makes for an enlightening complement. You get to see the engagement and repartee among the ensemble members, and the sound is a little more diffuse so that it’s possible to discern some subtleties you might have missed on the CD (although the tent revival-style chorus on “Don’t You Get Weary, Children” doesn’t come across as well as it does on the CD). And watching the unique footwork and joie de vivre of Nic Gareiss – surely one of the happiest people on the face of the planet – is always a pleasure.
“Nic isn’t just a dancer, he’s a musician,” says Childs. “He really uses his feet as a percussive instrument, with a number of different sounds.”
There is also a set unavailable on “As the Crow Flies”: “Turka,” a Russian gypsy violin piece by Oleg Ponomarev that is performed by Falls and Bonnie Bewick, both of whom have strong classical backgrounds. It’s a splendidly hyperbolic extravaganza, as Falls and Bewick trade riffs and the rest of the ensemble adds little flourishes to keep stirring the pot.
“’Turka’ is another example of how Childsplay has grown and matured as a band,” says Childs. “We’re seeing more and more how people are willing to move outside their comfort zone and push things, and each other, a little. And they rise to the occasion.”
Inevitably, the film seems to focus more on Murphy, Heaton, Cassel, Falls, Schneckenburger, and Bewick, who along with Childs appear in interviews between the musical selections. That’s where some discerning viewing, and listening to the CD, is helpful, to appreciate the textures added by, for example, Mark Roberts’s five-string banjo, Ralph Gordon’s string bass or Kathleen Guilday’s harp – and, for that matter, the full-bodied sound all the Childsplay fiddlers supply.
“There is not a conscious effort to ‘feature’ individuals on the DVD,” says Childs, who points out that the film had to be edited for length so it can be broadcast on TV. “The members who are responsible for most of the arrangements tend to be more visible, but everyone’s role in Childsplay is valued, and you can get a sense of that when you watch how everyone interacts together.”
Besides, Childs adds, there’s always the opportunity for other members to formulate and share ideas – and that includes McNally, who has arranged her first Childsplay piece for this year’s tour, one of five new selections that will debut.
“It’s been very exciting to see how the group has been going into new territory,” says Childs. “This year, for example, one of the new pieces is a tango. That may seem a departure for Childsplay, but really, when you step back and look at the path we’ve traveled, it makes perfect sense.”
For details on Childsplay’s performances and other information, see childsplay.org.