For Bob Childs, the idea of breaking up this joyous, talented musical ensemble is bittersweet.
By Glenn Rifkin
Childsplay, the brainchild ensemble of Bob Childs, a Cambridge-based violin maker, has performed its Celtic musical extravaganza in New England nearly every holiday season for the past 31 years. When Childs conceived of the idea, it was based upon a simple but compelling premise: the dozen or so fiddlers on the stage would all be playing violins crafted by Childs’ own hands. What better way to demonstrate the quality and beauty of his instruments then bringing together world-class violinists, with accompanying string and percussion instruments, on stage to perform a wide range of original Celtic and traditional holiday tunes.
But this year, when Childsplay concludes its four-date mini-tour on November 19 at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, it will mark the beginning of the end of the group. Childs has decided that the next tour of New England, which is slated for November, 2019, will be the group’s last. There may be another tour next year but if so, it would be outside New England.
For Childs, the idea of breaking up this joyous, talented musical ensemble is bittersweet. “To see the tradition coming to an end is a loss,” Childs confesses with obvious sadness. Not surprisingly, the culprit is money. The cost for Childs to mount even a small tour is prohibitive for the non-profit group. Though Childsplay has an enthusiastic and loyal following, that following is small and according to Childs, “It’s getting harder and harder to get bigger exposure to musical markets.”
As with most musical acts, most of the group’s income is generated by ticket and CD sales. But according to Childs, it is getting more difficult to gain wide enough exposure in new markets to generate those sales. A PBS documentary on the group was seen nationwide but it failed to spark the amount of radio airplay and the buzz necessary to thrive in the competitive music arena. With 21 people in the band and support crew, the cost of mounting the tour, most of which is borne by Childs himself, is no longer viable. Cutting down the scale is not an option. “I’m not interested in doing this with fewer musicians,” he said. “We’ve created a special sound, so doing it with a smaller group would not be the same.”
Melancholy aside, Childsplay is primed to put on its usual rousing show when it hits the stage this year. The group will perform on November 17 at the Gracie Theater in Bangor, Maine and at the Portland High School auditorium in Portland, Maine on November 18, followed by two shows at the Somerville Theater the next day at 3:30 and 7:30. The group will also record its seventh and final album in January, replete with original numbers and covers of some gems in its catalogue.
Karan Casey, a dynamic Celtic vocalist from Ireland, will once again appear in this year’s shows, as will step dancers Keiran Jordan and Kevin Doyle, who have choreographed some special new dances for this year’s offering. Among the virtuoso fiddlers and Childsplay veterans are Bonnie Bewick, a member of the Boston Symphony since 1987; Hanneke Cassel, an award winning fiddler and Oregon native; Sheila Falls, a New England Conservatory grad and three-time North American champion in Irish fiddling; and Steve Hickman, a fiddler and virtuoso in the arcane art of hambone (which makes him a perennial crowd favorite).
Anyone who has seen Childsplay understands the energy and camaraderie that underpins each performance. These are all accomplished musicians with thriving careers who have taken personal time to come together to write music, rehearse, and perform. Childs calls them a family he created for himself. For the 65-year old Maine native who lived in five foster homes as a child near Bangor, family is utterly vital. Included in this tight-knit community is the audience, which has supported and appreciated the band for more than three decades. And these near final shows are actually meant as a tribute.
“It’s a way of honoring the band and honoring our audience as well,” Childs said.
Given his love for the music, the instruments, and the group, it was a bit of a struggle for Childs to come to his decision to end the tour. The turning point moment for Childs came earlier this year when he tried to arrange a concert at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, and was turned down. The executive producer of a local Burlington television station, who is a huge Childsplay fan, wanted to get a show lined up there, but the director of the Flynn didn’t think the group was well enough known to draw a crowd.
“It was so disheartening to me,” Childs said. “I feel like I’m pushing the rock up the hill and I can’t do it anymore.” Having married later in life, Childs has two young children and the costs of mounting the tour have become untenable: “I have to be financially smart about it and it’s not really fair to my family to do it anymore.”
Given the circumstances, this year’s shows promise to be pumped with focus and purpose. The set list will include traditional Celtic reels, a French Canadian tune, and some surprises, all composed by members of Childsplay, and the performance will no doubt be infused with the band’s usual harmonies and rich rhythmic texture. The holidays in the Boston area inspire a number of Celtic music offerings — but Childsplay is unique, in both sound and spirit.
“Our audience is amazing and really appreciates the band,” Childs stated. “I want to end this in the right way, a way that really acknowledges all the people in the band and the community that we’ve created.”
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.