The Bee Eaters perform at Katharine Cornell
The coming winter looks long and cold, and the Island has taken on a ghostly feel with Halloween a week away. Luckily there's still a strong, warm heartbeat at KCT Concerts, Mary Wolverton and Gregg Harcourt's non-profit productions that have brought world-class Celtic folk music to the Island for the better part of the past decade. The concerts are family-friendly and kept reasonably priced, especially considering the caliber of the music they offer, thanks in part to a grant from the Martha's Vineyard Cultural Council.
Their current offering at the Katharine Cornell Theatre - this Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8 pm - is The Bee Eaters. The name may not be on your iPod yet, but after this weekend that may change.
Strings - bowed, plucked, and hammered - are the core of The Bee Eaters, comprised of the brother-sister fiddle duo Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, five-string banjo player Wes Corbett, and hammered-dulcimer player Simon Chrisman. Among them, they bring an embarrassment of accolades and credentials. Both Clarridge siblings have been Grand National Fiddle Champions. Tristan, who also plays cello, tours with Crooked Still as well as Darol Anger's Republic of Strings, and has performed with Mike Marshall, Bruce Molsky, and Natalie MacMaster. Tashina has toured with Mark O'Connor and Tony Trischka and has performed at Carnegie Hall as part of Edgar Meyer's Young Artists program.
Wes Corbett, just 22, has toured internationally with The Biscuit Burners, and has appeared with the David Grisman Quintet, Matt Glaser, and numerous other groups. He currently tours with a band called Joy Kills Sorrow. Wes shares Bainbridge Island, Wash., roots with hammered-dulcimer virtuoso Simon Chrisman, who has performed with Darol Anger and Mike Marshall, opened for Bill Frisell, and at age 16 was a scholarship artist at the Augusta Heritage Festival in West Virginia.
Speaking by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was touring, Tristan Clarridge talked about the difficulties of traveling to faraway places, trying to recreate delicate acoustic sounds with temperamental wooden instruments in unpredictable concert environments.
"It's an extremely experimental lifestyle," he said, laughing. "You never know what's going to come next, so you have to be able to adapt. Normally it's a happy surprise."
When asked about switching from one band to another, Mr. Clarridge said, "Actually I like the variety. I express myself differently from one band to another. It's a nice contrast to have."
The versatility of The Bee Eaters is reflected in the group's embrace of a wide variety of influences and experiences. "For me it was classical and fiddle, often at the same time," said Mr. Clarridge. "I got deep into Celtic music, which is played in contests. I went to Mike Marshall's music camp in Tennessee at the age of eight."
Bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, jazz, pop - there are many labels The Bee Eaters might wear. In the new acoustic movement, the term "Newgrass" sometimes surfaces.
"I don't mind the word," said Mr. Clarridge. "I'm grateful to have one thing to call what we do," noting the group's penchant for blurring boundaries. "But then [bluegrass legend] Bill Monroe got where he did by being experimental. Bach was a great improviser."
Tristan's sister, Tashina, speaking from Boston where all four Bee Eaters now live, picked up the conversation: "My brother and I both have backgrounds in baroque music, which is more compatible with traditional American music than you might think. Later classical music became more dramatic, but baroque music is understated like fiddle music. Both traditional American and baroque music use vibrato in a similar way. Also, with baroque music, within the written composition it's understood that there's a lot of freedom. Improvisation was accepted by baroque musicians the way it is with traditional American music."
All four members of The Bee Eaters contribute to the final form of their group's repertoire. Surprisingly for a group so formally trained, the pieces rarely exist in standard notation. Instead, the instrumentalists work out their parts by ear. The reason, Tashina explains, is that music written on a five-line staff doesn't convey a lot of important information needed by the player of a five-string banjo or a hammered dulcimer, instruments that rarely stray far from basic fiddle-tune keys. The Bee Eaters have taken this as a challenge, using unexpected chromatic changes to great effect.
The new self-titled Bee Eaters CD, the group's first, was produced by Darol Anger. It's a sharp, clean example of where new acoustic music may be headed. Harmonically and sonically adventurous, the album nonetheless gets all its power from an amalgam of natural colors both big and small: drones, harmonics, the spark of bow on string, and the high-wire thrill of playing against each other live. Eschewing recording-studio stunts and electronic trickery, the group instead celebrates old-fashioned virtuosity and a hand-molded tone that seems to well from a lifetime of loving all types of music for the pure joy of playing together.
The Bee Eaters, Sat., Oct. 24 at 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre. $15 in advance, $20 at the door, children free. Available at Aboveground Records, Alley's General Store, Island Entertainment, The Scottish Bakehouse. 508-693-6237; kctconcerts.com.
Daniel Waters is on staff at The Times.