Childsplay at the State Street Church

Childsplay during their 2012 farewell tour. Courtesy Childsplay

Childsplay during their 2012 farewell tour. Courtesy Childsplay

Imagine anywhere from 21 to 28 fiddler/violin players on one stage with a rhythm section, throw in a random banjo or wooden flute … sound like a party?

Well, that’s how Childsplay got its start: in Bob Childs’ house at a succession of Christmas parties. And all the instruments they played were made by Bob Childs. So, now imagine 30 siblings singing together. That’s what it sounds like to have a stage full of one instrument maker’s creations. And what an incredible, warm sound it was. What a great sonic experience! When they all played together it was like one gigantic violin on stage.

Producing this concert tour and running the concerts, with their complicated program of sub-groups and big crowd numbers, must have been a logistical challenge, but I must commend Childs for a very smooth production. Most of the musicians had a chance to to be featured in a solo or small group. Childs also filled the role of host eloquently — he was succinct with his introductions, which helped the listeners greet the next tune with understanding and anticipation.

Getting away from the technical stuff and on to the music….

The list of musicians was very long and the program did not identify who played on which tune, so I will refrain from trying to match names with songs unless I’m certain. The total list of musicians appears at the end of this review. And there were dancers! Irish step dancer Kieran Jordan and Appalachian clogger Amy Fenton-Shine were a great addition. Irish harpist Kathleen Guilday appeared for a few songs, and a rhythm section (bass, cello, piano, banjo, guitar) chimed in as needed. The banjo player even turned his banjo over and used some brushes on it periodically to bring in a little percussion.

A dazzling array of playing styles was included — the dominant ones were Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, American old-timey, and Scandinavian. But there were also peeks at classical, bluesy/gospel, gypsy, and few jazzy comments by the cellist (who was amazing). Players grouped and regrouped, changed instruments, changed styles, had solos…. It was obvious that they all had a great interest in each other’s techniques. The Swedish guys were playing old-timey, and the Irish players were playing the Swedish tunes, and around they went. Just like a Christmas party … at least a Christmas party where all the guests are talented fiddle players.

There were some selections that especially stood out for me — perhaps it was because they had elements in them that only appeared once, or which left me wanting more. But then I always like the oddball stuff.

The opening medley was played by two women, a mother and daughter, Molly and Ellen Gawler. The first in the medley was a ballad about how a tree becomes a violin. The vocal, sung by Molly, was absolutely stunning. I could have listened to her sing all night. A piece entitled “Evergreen” was a beautiful composition that seemed to come from a place where classical and folk sensibilities meet. It had a specific arrangement with an introduction by the cellist, then all the fiddles moved in (mostly in unison, if I remember correctly). Just a wonderful composition. Joyce Andersen sang and played a bluesy/gospel song with a room full of soul. Wow!

During the second set, the cellist, Rushad Eggleston, and the two dancers, Kieran Jordan and Amy Fenton-Shine, performed an amazing call-and-response piece. The cello started with a jazzy solo. Kieran, the step dancer, came out and began to respond. Shortly after, clogger Amy arrived and the three of them got into a dynamic “conversation.” At the end they all danced off stage and Rushad kept playing as he danced away with them!

The cellist caught my attention from the moment he hit the stage at the beginning of the night. There was an attitude about him with the way he would lean into a song no matter what its origin was. And for those moments when he had a chance to be out front and shine a bit, he was most impressive.

There was a sextet of Swedish players (two of whom appear to live in the US) that filled the hall with polskas (and some other things too). I’m always a sucker for Swedish tunes so I loved their contributions. It is worth noting, if I got the gist of Bob Childs’ comments correctly, that the appearance of six Swedes here in Portland had previously been mirrored by a visit to Sweden by some of the other Childsplay musicians. Quite the cross-cultural musical exchange program being a member of this group provides.

Bob introduced a piece that would take us to “a mysterious place” that started slowly with an engulfing drone (that cellist again), then one violin and bass started to play and a gypsy-sounding melody began to emerge. Quickly the rest of the players on stage joined in, and the church rocked with a Balkan sound. Too bad there was no room for dancing.

If Childsplay ever gets to your neighborhood, go see them! It was a fantastic evening of music and I would go again in a heartbeat.

List of musicians:

Strings: Sam Amidon, Joyce Andersen, Pamela Blau, Julia Borland-Ferneborg, Bob Childs, Vicki Citron, Joe DeZarn, Ruthie Dornfeld, Julie Durrell, Rushad Eggleston, Kerry Elkin, Bertil Ferneborg, Sheila Falls-Keohane, Ellen Gawler, Molly Gawler, Ralph Gordon, Steve Hickman, Debby Knight, Dave Langford, Margaret Lepley, Laura Light, Laurel Martin, Lars Moberg, Keith Murphy, Carolyn Ormes, Mark Roberts, Steve Trampe, and Robert Treat

Guests from Sweden: Per Gudmundson, Pelle Gustafsson, Lars Hokpers, and Ake Wann

Irish step dancer: Kieran Jordan

Appalachian clogger: Amy Fenton-Shine

Irish harper: Kathleen Guilday

(Portland, Maine, USA, December 5, 2002)

Barb Truex

Barbara Truex lives in southern Maine where she performs, composes, and creates sound designs. She performs regularly with three groups, works with local theaters, audio drama producers, and hosts a world music program on community radio. Her instruments of choice are electric and acoustic mountain dulcimers, banjo and baritone ukuleles, tenor guitar and hand percussion. Musical meanderings include (but are not limited to) improvisation, jazz, French traditional, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and of course American folk music.

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