The central concept of all-star New England Celtic band Childsplay is that each member of the band plays a stringed instrument made by luthier Bob Childs. Hence the band’s name! It’s a simple idea, but beautiful in return. Drawing from the same woods and the same craftsmanship, a case could be made that these instruments resonate together better than the more random assortment of instruments that you’d find in an orchestra. Each instrument is different from the other, of course, and ultimately each instrument is built for each fiddler by Childs, but overall I’d like to think that there’s a larger sound at work from Childs’ vision and that sound rings in closer harmony. The caliber of artists that play Child’s instruments is mightily impressive, and Childsplay is a supergroup because of these same artists.
The ranks of Childsplay’s fiddlers on the new album, The Bloom of Youth, include avant-trad artist Sam Amidon, Scottish fiddlers Hanneke Cassel and Katie McNally, New England fiddlers Lissa Schneckenburger and Naomi Morse, Boston Symphony violinist Bonnie Bewick, Irish fiddlers Amanda Cavanaugh, Laurel Martin, and Sheila Falls-Keohane, Southern fiddler Graham DeZarn, and Childs himself. And that’s just the fiddlers! Of special note, famed Irish vocalist Karan Casey provides powerful vocals on the album’s songs, and she’s joined by multi-instrumentalists like Shannon Heaton, Mark Roberts, Keith Murphy, and more.
It’s a wildly impressive cast, but of course, without a careful touch and masterful arrangements, a group this big wouldn’t sound as tight as Childsplay does. It’s great to hear so many fiddles and stringed instruments (Childs’ violas, cellos, and a bass are also on display here) blasting through the precise movements of the Scotch snaps of a great strathspey like “Buddy’s Strathspey”, written by Hanneke Cassel. On that note, a key part of the album is that each tune medley or song is headed off by different members of the ensemble, kind of like guest curators. The aforementioned strathspey is from a set of Scottish tunes picked by Cassel, there’s also a powerful set of jigs picked by Sheila Falls-Keohane, Irish tunes from Keith Murphy, and Katie McNally contributes two gorgeous tunes she wrote.
All of this talk of tunes and fiddles makes it sound like the album’s mostly instrumental, but the songs may actually the best part. Casey’s picked some powerfully relevant songs from traditional and contemporary sources, and key fiddlers in Childsplay bring along excellent arrangements for the rest of the group. Joni Mitchell’s classic “The Fiddle and the Drum” shines in our current time of increased militarization and nationalism, and a traditional song about Irish emigration, “Sailing off to Yankeeland,” gets a touching passage from Casey in the liner notes asking for more respect for immigrants to America as this country has been one long history of immigration.
This is a timely and beautifully wrought album, bringing a host of master musicians together with a creatively inspiring vision.