Childsplay, First Parish Church, 425 Congress St., Portland, Maine, USA (December 5, 2003)
For the people of the Portland, Maine area, the December Childsplay visit is becoming a habit. The setting this year was the First Parish Church, a favorite concert venue in town. The acoustics are fabulous in this old building though you have to sit up very straight in those old pews! I was lucky enough to find a real chair in the choir area. My first opportunity to see this organization of fiddlers was just a year ago. Pardon me if I repeat myself a little from last year's review.
About a month before the Portland concert I went to visit Bob Childs in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, studio to record an interview. We talked a lot about violin making and how the performing group evolved from a simple gathering of musicians playing his instruments to the current nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting fiddle/violin music.
All of the fiddlers, along with the occasional violist, play instruments constructed by Childs. It's a feature that gives the performances a certain warmth, much like siblings singing together. The group tries to carve out the week before the December concerts to play, eat, and live together immersing themselves in music and camaraderie. The effect this preparation has on the performance is not only in the playing but also in the attitude - what is important is the work. There are equal parts of listening, learning, contributing, and performing. That is usually a hard thing to accomplish among any group of performers as egos all too often beat their way to the forefront at the expense of the art.
During the 2002 concert, I was constantly surprised and pleased at the many directions the group took in terms of playing styles and musical genres. So naturally, I thought I knew what to expect in 2003. I think now I realize that what I will expect from this group is consistent surprises! The whole concert was like a great road trip: sometimes we'd be zipping down the highway, then we'd get off a random exit and find a quaint little town, then find ourselves in an urban music club...It was smooth, but always with some unexpected turns. It was the kind of concert that kept me smiling so much just from the sheer joy of the music that my cheeks hurt by the end of it! I also want to mention that the sound quality and mixing were superb as well. I could just give you a general description of the concert, but I really feel that every part of the program needs to be talked about, so this review is longer than some.
Up high on the wall behind the stage area the group's logo was projected. It's a wonderful abstraction of a violin: rough around the edges in a painterly way, with a body that's fat and happy. It evokes fun and seriousness at the same time and is an apt visual image of the group.
At the top of the show all of the musicians filed in, completely filling the performing space. There were more than thirty players fitting in to every nook and cranny around the architecture of the altar area and the sound equipment. The rhythm section claimed the right side of the stage. Bob Childs opened the evening with a haunting solo melody on his own violin that immediately drew the audience to attention. As the tune went on there was a gradual layering of instruments: cello, two more fiddles, bowed bass. With a change in the pace the keyboard chimed in and pretty soon the other fiddles, winds, harp, and everyone were in, building the intensity with each addition. I think they had the audience in their hands for the evening by the end of that first piece.
Childs was conscientious about pointing out the folks from Maine in the group and giving them an opportunity to show their stuff to the home crowd. Ellen and Molly Gawler are two of those folks. This mother (Ellen) and daughter (Molly) team gave us some Maine dance tunes. They were joined by Ruthie Dornfeld and two youthful players, Sam Amidon and Graham Dezarn.
Ever the host, Childs is impeccable with his in-between-tunes patter. He talks about the players and the music, always giving the listener something to chew on for the next selection. This year the concert's theme was memories. There were many dedications to friends and family both living and passed on. It was hard not to think of some of my own memories and I automatically made the tunes accommodate my personal history.
The third tune of the evening was in memory of a Shetland fiddler and was played by the two Swedish members of the ensemble, Hanneke Cassel and Sheila Falls-Keohane. The tune had those classic Celtic/Nordic moves between major and minor and included a cello solo by Rushad Eggleston. I remember this cellist from last year's show. It would be easy to say he stands out because he's the only one playing a cello, but it's much more than that. This young player is extraordinary. He has a fabulous take on the supporting roles in the rhythm section, not to mention his melodic and soloing ability. He is also an accomplished improviser. Looking a bit like a twenty-something Salvador Dali, he topped it all off with a wild satin/sequined hat.
With everyone on stage for the first set, there is always a bit of position shifting that goes on as the featured performers change, but Childsplay has their moves figured out thanks to having stage management, and it almost never detracts from the smoothness of the show. I applaud the organization for realizing the need for good planning on the stage.
You can't have a bunch of fiddlers without a bunch of dance tunes, and in this case the dancers are included! An Irish set of tunes kicked in to high gear with Mark Simos, Mark Roberts, Laurel Martin, Sam Amidon, Ellen Gawler and Graham Dezarn at the front. When the medley shifted to the next tune we suddenly realized that Kieran Jordan had snuck up on to the dance platform and her percussive feet were tapping over the fiddling. The First Parish Church has a U-shaped balcony that surrounds the hall. Audience members who needed to see the feet dashed to end of the balcony to get a better look. Anyone down on the main floor was mostly out of luck because of the architectural barriers. This is the only beef I had with the whole performance: the dancer's need to be in better view. I imagined the idea of the old go-go dancers' cages from the 60's! But you know, it would actually be cool and you'd really be able to see them. I'm sure it's different from hall to hall, but it's really tough to watch a step-dancer from mid-thigh up.
With an about face, Hanneke Cassel headed up a trio with Rushad Eggleston (cello) and Keith Murphy (guitar) that featured Cassel's original compositions. If I'm not mistaken, they performed a trio spot at the 2002 concert that completely blew me away. This year was no different. Wow, fabulous, cool, exciting...if they performed as a regular entity I would be there in a heartbeat.
Kierin Jordan came back for another round of set dancing joined by two of the fiddlers. This one was choreographed for a specific piece of music and there was an interesting juxtaposition between the slow melody and the rapid dancing rhythms.
Steve Hickman headed up an old time tune with Mark Roberts on banjo and Amy Fenton Shine showing off her clogging technique. The same problem of viewing feet applies to watching Amy, but the difference in the clogging style as opposed to stepdancing meant that at least her arms were swinging and her beautiful costume would get caught up in her hands, periodically flinging the fabric around for a great accent.
"Today's the Day", a song written and arranged by group member Mark Simos, was one of those pleasant surprises. It was sung by fiddler Joyce Andersen, who sings as well as she plays. The "orchestra" was conducted (I think by Mark) and the music fell somewhere in between the genres of pop, classical pops, and folk, pulling out the best qualities of those genres and leaving the fluff aside. Watching the piece being conducted added a visual element as well as being necessary.
The first set ended on the appropriate fast track with a Cape Breton set led by Hanneke Cassel and Roger Treat with dancer Keiran Jordan reappearing with her stepdancing. It was a happy set of tunes to get the blood moving for the quick dash to the sales table and concession stand at intermission.
The second set of music was even more inspiring than the first. To start, the stage was empty. Rather than having all the musicians file in, only the trio of the Gawler sisters (Elysee, Edith, and Molly) made their way to the stage. They sang a tune written by veteran musician Pete Sutherland about what it means to be a fiddle player. There is only one way to describe this a cappella piece. HOLY COW!!! I wasn't "wowed" just because they are teenagers, I wasn't "wowed" just because it was a great song by a great songwriter. I was "wowed" because these girls have their act together with a style all their own and they are GOOD! You could hear elements of the McGarrigles, the Roches, and the Andrews Sisters flitting around, but it was the Gawlers that came through loud and clear. They held hands while they sang and the energy being sent from the stage to the audience was just astounding. You won't be surprised to hear that the ovation went on and on and on.
The Gawlers were a tough act to follow, but Joyce Andersen held her ground with and original song, "Love Finds a Way". She played and sang and her accompaniment included plucking the strings and strumming. Very, very nice.
By this point in the program, if any audience member hadn't figured out that we're not just talking fiddles here, they must have been sleeping. But just in case, Steve Hickman got up and presented a hambone solo that made jaws drop to the floor. As Childs commented afterwards, "He can't play the fiddle for ten minutes after he does that!". No kidding!
OK, back to the Irish with a set featuring Sheila Falls-Keohane, Joe Dezarn, Laurel Martin, Ellen Gawler, Mark Roberts (wooden flute), and Mark Simos (guitar). The medley started slowly and gradually built up speed, bringing in Kieran Jordan again for some stepdancing.
After the medley, the whole party moved back on stage for a composition written in memory of Tony Cuffe, a guitar player who was very close to Childsplay, who passed away a couple of years ago. This very sweet "Waltz for Tony Cuffe" was written by John McCusker and Pete Sutherland.
Now it was time for a little Finnish music featuring Ruthie Dornfeld and Keith Murphy, layering in the cello and bass, and gradually bringing in the whole group. This piece reminded me (not that I needed any reminding) of how much I love Scandinavian music.
Dave Langford, Steve Hickman and Mark Simos, along with Mark Roberts (banjo) swung us back around again to the old timey corner. The tune started with a solo fiddle, then Rushad easing in the cello with his incredible sense of rhythm, the banjo, another fiddle, until finally all the remaining musicians were part of the scene, transporting the audience on magic carpets flying around the room. Then Amy Fenton Shine started clogging to top it all off.
Bob Childs lost his sister, Dana Shuhan, this past year and "Dante's Prayer", a beautiful song of Lorenna McKennitt's was sung by Aiofe O'Donovan in her memory. Childsplay's arrangement included bowed cello and bass along with the piano and harp. A tear jerker for sure.
As the evening began to wind down, we were jazzed by a set of French Canadian tunes led by Joe Dezarn and Debby Knight. Foot tapping from the guitarist boosted the rhythm. Dave Langford and Joyce Andersen swung into some jazz fiddle and Steve Hickman burst in with a vocal rendition of the song "Jeepers Creepers". The rhythm section provided superb back up with piano and brushes. Just plain good fun.
Naturally there was an encore, in fact there were two. Nobody wanted the music to stop. The first encore got rolling with a fast old timey debate between the irrepressible hambone stunts of Steve Hickman and the flying feet of the two dancers Kieran Jordan and Amy Fenton Shine. It was like watching kids trying to one-up each other on the playground. This locked my face into a permanent smile.
The room slowed down with "The Great Waltz", and realizing that the musicians were probably ready to call it a night, the audience allowed them to stop and go home. But the music rings with me still, and I will greatly look forward to next year's concert in Portland.