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Childsplay en route to Lexington this month

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, November 2, 2012

Childsplay, the all-star fiddle ensemble featuring many musicians with ties to the Boston area, makes its annual visit later this month to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington and perform three concerts.

The group – whose repertoire is taken mainly from Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, French Canadian, Scandinavian, and American folk traditions – will appear at the museum on Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m., then return on December for two shows, at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Childsplay is the creation of Cambridge violin-maker Bob Childs, whose handiwork is used by all the fiddlers and violists in the ensemble. Among the many fiddlers who have taken part in the annual Childsplay concerts are Laurel Martin, Sheila Falls, Hanneke Cassel, Amanda Cavanaugh, Sam Amidon, Mark Simos, Mary Lea, Dave Langford, Pete Sutherland, and Katie McNally, as well as Childs himself. Childsplay also has featured other instrumentalists, including Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle, accordion), Ariel Friedman (cello), Kathleen Guilday (harp), Keith Murphy (guitar, piano) and Ralph Gordon (string bass), and dancers like Kieran Jordan and Nic Gareiss.

The group is known equally for its array of fine singers, notably long-time member Lissa Schneckenburger – who this year will assume lead vocal duties for the departed Aoife O’Donovan – along with Heaton and Murphy, among others.
This year’s Childsplay tour will include a special tribute to one-time music director John McGann, who died in April.
Also in the works for Childsplay is a new album – their sixth – that will be produced by Childs and Liz Carroll, another past performer in the group. In addition, according to Childs, plans are being made for the group to record a new concert DVD; the first, “Fiddles, Fiddlers and a Fiddlemaker” (released in early 2011), combined footage of Childsplay’s 2009 performance in Somerville Theater and interviews with several members.
For more about Childsplay, and for links to ticket information and reservations for the concerts at the National Heritage Museum, see childsplay.org.

The Olllam, “The Olllam” – John McSherry is one busy fella these days. On the heels of the release earlier this year of “Idir,” as part of the trio At First Light, the Lunasa co-founder now unveils his newest undertaking, a collaboration with Detroit natives Mike Shimmin and Tyler Duncan (and yes, that is a third “l” in “Olllam”).

On this album, McSherry (uilleann pipes and whistles) brings his sense of musical adventure to play with the equally innovative-minded Shimmin (drums, percussion) and Duncan (uilleann pipes, whistles, guitar, electric piano), who are members of the Irish trad/jazz fusion band Millish. The result is a layer cake of traditional and contemporary concepts and styles: whistles and pipes in dynamic, neo-trad runs, jazz-funk keyboard riffs and fills, breezy acoustic guitar solos, and brisk percussive backing. At times, it sounds like a low-key, stripped-down version of Moving Hearts in their post-Christy Moore era.

The second track, “The Belll” – which follows a brief “Prolllogue” (the triple-“l” thing is a motif throughout the album) – establishes the album’s premise. Duncan lays down a series of soft two-beat chord progressions on guitar, on top of which McSherry plays his characteristically dexterous low whistle in what sounds like straightforward 6/8, underscored by Shimmin’s intermittent bodhran. Then McSherry begins to tinker with the tune structure, improvising and bending notes while electric piano and a slightly more elaborate drum accompaniment filter in – and then we’re back to the guitar chords again. Just when you think you’ve discerned a pattern, McSherry drops out while guitar, electric piano and bass bounce off each other, and when he comes back in the time signature changes briefly into 4/4 before suddenly reverting to the previous one, leading into the guitar chord sequence again just before the end.

And that’s how it goes: The trio deliberately eschews the traditional (in every sense of the word) Irish tune format, so don’t listen for “A” and “B” parts because they just don’t emerge; instead, you get choruses, pre-choruses and bridges. McSherry’s gyrations on “The Follly of Wisdom,” for example, transition into a delicate, bell-like electric piano solo over a rockin’ guitar-drum combo; likewise, “The Tryst After Death” – which begins with solemn electric piano and tick-tock drum rhythm — becomes an exciting, accentuated pipes and whistle duet that develops into an increasingly tense stand-off between electric piano and guitar, Shimmin’s drums and cymbals building up the pressure until it breaks off into a reprise of the piano-drum pattern from the beginning.

This all may seem very cerebral and high-concept as described in print, but there’s definitely an accessible informality to the sound. Give it a listen, and don’t sweat that extra “l.”

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