The Nettles whip up a Celtic frenzy
Local band brings fusion sound to Folklore Society contra dance
By Pat Amacher
might say, with apologies to Sinatra, that the Nettles have got the
world on a string. Every time they move their fingers, life’s a
that sentiment a step further, the Corvallis “Celtic fusion” band’s
stringed instruments, along with the drums, pennywhistle and saxophone
brought by turns into the mix, compellingly fuse a virtual world of
musical influences for the group’s exuberant performances at pubs,
weddings and contra dances throughout the region.
to the band rehearse in the living room of Laura Brophy and Kevin
Johnsrude, who formed the Nettles in 1996, the listener is struck
first, of course, by the music: compelling and fiery, lush and wild.
But the next thing one notices is the way one’s body has begun to move,
involuntarily and irrepressibly.
This isn’t ethereal New Age
mood music, wan and generically Irish in flavor, such as that produced
by the likes of Celtic Woman or Enya. The Nettles pour a far more
intoxicating brew, both mesmerizing and volatile.
band’s unerring talent to incite motion is the primary reason they draw
the largest crowds at the Corvallis Folklore Society’s bi-weekly contra
“They will bring in the most people,” says Marfa Levine,
who is in charge of booking bands for the dances, which draw 80 to 120
“The energy they exude is what is so appealing; we try to book them four times a year.”
contra dance, derived from centuries-old traditions in the British
Isles and Europe, involves dance partners in a series of moves,
performed with each other and other couples, similar to old-time square
dancing. A caller instructs the dancers before and during the dance,
until dancers are able to continue on their own, led only by the music.
Guiding dancers with rhythm and melody is a skill at which the Nettles excel, according to Levine.
have to be aware that they are driving the dancers,” she explains. “As
the caller seeks to bow out, the music establishes the rhythm that
reminds peoples’ bodies that a move is happening. It becomes
The music is mutually inspiring for the musicians
themselves, who, Johnsrude says, have a mission “to improvise using
traditional music,” something many might expect to encounter more often
in the realm of jazz.
Citing global influences as far flung as
Eastern Europe and as diverse as James Brown and Thelonious Monk, the
group maintains that they “never play the same tune once,” a claim
readily confirmed as they rehearse a medley of two tunes, “The Ships
are Sailing” and “Indian Point.” Subtle changes are apparent as the
group’s energy builds.
“All of the changes in mood and dynamics,
we’re just making them up on the fly,” Brophy says. “We try to listen
to each other, just like a jazz group does.”
Although devoted to
improvisation, “We use the tune more” than the typical jazz band,
Brophy explains. “We try to refer to the tune when we improvise a lot,
make sure that it’s still there in character, partly because we play
for dancers often and they may be listening for parts of the tune.
“We try to keep the tune at the forefront.”
their contra dance incarnation, the Nettles consists of Brophy on
fiddle and Johnsrude on guitar, with Michael Proctor on bass, Brian
Bucolo on drums and Todd Silverstein, who also composes for the group,
on pennywhistle, saxophone and bouzouki. At Big River Restaurant, a
venue they play several times a year, Brophy and Johnsrude are joined
by percussionist Ankush Vimawala on the Indian tabla.
Nettles also play at weddings, dance camps and festivals throughout the
Northwest, and next fall will tour the East Coast from Washington,
D.C., to Asheville, N.C. More information is available at
IF YOU DANCE
What: The Nettles
perform at the Corvallis Folklore Society contra dance, Saturday, May
20. Rollicking rhythms and Celtic tunes, with instruction at 7:30 p.m.;
all ages are welcome.
Where: First Congregational Church, 4515 S.W. West Hills Road, Corvallis
Who: Open to the public, no membership required, only clean shoes.
Cost: $6, general; $5, CFS members.
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