Though Gregg Harcourt and Mary Wolverton of KCT (Katharine Cornell Theater) Concerts generally focus on Irish music in their bookings, the concert producers have recently strayed a little more into other compatible styles. On Thursday, Sept. 22, KCT Concerts will present a group from Boston, the Bee Eaters, whose music is influenced by genres as diverse as bluegrass, Celtic, classical, jazz, and old-time, though their style is distinctively their own.
“They’re traditional based, but they have extended beyond the traditional,” Mr. Harcourt said. “There’s a little jazziness to their music. They’re like jazz musicians in that they’re very improvisational.”
The Bee Eaters create their sound with a combination of fiddle, cello, mandolin, and hammered dulcimer. The latter is a multi-stringed instrument played with mallets that can deliver complex compositions similar to a keyboard, though the sound is very much that of a stringed instrument. The dulcimer adds an ethereal quality to much of the group’s music. The quartet has been compared to a chamber music group, and the richness of their arrangements justify that comparison, but the bluegrass and Celtic traditions are just as much in evidence in the Bee Eaters’ compositions. The jazz element is in evidence in the group’s reliance on improvisations.
The band members are all accomplished musicians. Brother and sister, Tristan and Tashina Claridge, are both champion fiddlers. Ms. Claridge was the 2005 Grand National Fiddle Champion, while Mr. Claridge has racked up an impressive five wins in the same competition. He says, “I had a fiddle before I was two and played in my first fiddle contest when I was three.” Mr. Claridge has also been lauded for his work on the cello — the instrument he brings to the Bee Eaters’ lineup.
Mandolinist Dominick Leslie has won numerous mandolin championships and performed in France as a member of a mandolin ensemble. Simon Chrisman has brought his unique dulcimer sound to recordings and live performances by some well established folk musicians, and he has opened for eclectic jazz pioneer Bill Frissell.
Mr. Harcourt was introduced to the Bee Eaters’ music by Islander Donald Nitchie, who publishes a national magazine called the Banjo Newsletter. He gave Mr. Harcourt and Ms. Wolverton a copy of a Bee Eaters recording and the concert producers were impressed enough to book the group last year. The show was well attended and attracted some new audience members for KCT concerts, owing to their unique, exploratory sound.
The Claridges grew up in a tipi in a remote area of Northern California and were immersed in traditional music from their early years. Said Mr. Claridge of the Bee Eaters’ music, “I think the sounds are inherently influenced by our exposure to bluegrass, Celtic, old time Applalachian, jazz, classical music, and pretty much any sound we’ve ever listened to.” Of the improvisational nature of the group, he said, “There’s a lot of room for people to express whatever they’re feeing right at that moment.”
Mr. Claridge noted that the Bee Eaters have a wide appeal. He finds that all ages and types of music lovers attend their shows. “I think that it’s music that appeals to any listener who has open ears,” Mr. Claridge said. “If someone has certain expectations, they might be disappointed. I think it appeals to a wide range of people and different age demographics because it’s just sounds that we hear in our heads and we try as hard as we can to express what we’re feeling. We don’t follow rules.”
KCT Concerts is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization devoted to traditional music. Mr. Harcourt noted that the Bee Eaters show represent a trend towards trying to incorporate different types of music in their schedule while staying true to their roots. “We’re trying to expand so people stay interested. We get the best Irish musicians here. Outside of that it’s a bit of a stretch for us,” he said.
Judging by the response to last year’s show, KCT’s efforts to become more inclusive have paid off. Not only did audience members appreciate the show, the band enjoyed their stay here and the crowd’s reaction. “It was great,” Mr. Claridge said. “We had a nice full house. The response was really enthusiastic. It was one of our favorite shows on the tour.” He calls the Katharine Cornell Theatre “a beautiful sounding hall,” and says, “The venue you perform in is like another instrument.”
Chances are that the Bee Eaters will make the Vineyard a regular stop when on tour. Said Mr. Claridge, “We make a policy of only looking for work in places we want to visit.”
The Bee Eaters, Thursday, Sept. 22, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. kctconcerts.com.
You can download the Bee Eater’s CD on bandcamp.com or purchase it from cdbaby.com.