Category: Archive

Trad Beat Snap and crackle of Popcorn BehaviorOctober 25-31, 2000

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

Similar to square dancing, contradancing is an American adaptation of English country dancing and its French successor, contredanse. The live music played for contradancing is largely jigs, reels, and hornpipes culled from the Irish and Scots traditions. Well-known Irish traditional musicians, such as fiddler Kevin Burke and button accordionist John Whelan, have performed at contradances with notable success. It’s rare, however, for a band essentially formed for contradances to break out of the genre and achieve a notoriety greater than its country-dance origins.

One such band is Popcorn Behavior, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based group founded in 1993 by two brothers, Sam and Stefan Amidon, and their friend Thomas Bartlett. With 13-year-old Sam on fiddle, 10-year-old Stefan on percussion, and 13-year-old Thomas on piano and piano accordion, Popcorn Behavior released their self-titled first album in 1994 on their own label and rapidly gained recognition throughout New England.

But they really began to hit their recording stride with 1997’s "Journeywork," performing tunes composed by Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll ("The Diplodocus," "Princess Nancy"), Tyrone guitarist Arty McGlynn ("Lead the Knave"), and Cavan fiddler Ed Reavy "The Whistler of Rosslea"), as well as seven tunes written by 16-year-old Thomas Bartlett.

Bartlett’s talents as a pianist and composer are truly phenomenal. From Westminster, Vt., he began learning classical piano on his own initiative at age 6, then progressed to the point where he was giving recitals and winning concerto competitions. His skill was so extraordinary that world-renowned piano instructor Maria Curcio accepted him as one of her students in London during 1998-1999.

For their 1999 album, "Strangest Dream," Popcorn Behavior became a quartet, taking in their first non-teenager, Keith Murphy, a 35-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist known for his work in the Vermont contradance trio Nightingale. As Popcorn Behavior expanded, so, too, did Bartlett in his musical eclecticism. This most recent of band recordings displays not just his further growth as a singular performer in Irish traditional, contradance, and classical music, but also in jazz, and he’s capable of weaving all four strands into something truly remarkable.

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In "Impromptu [Conversations]/Exile of Erin," Bartlett plays with breathtaking brio a section of a composition by Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, regarded for his heady fusion of Afro-Caribbean music with bebop and post-bop influences, and Sam Amidon adds his touch on fiddle to an Irish traditional tune. In "The Wedding/Chisa," both composed by Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), a South African pianist who imbues his music with native township strains as well as Monk and Ellington overtones, Bartlett gives a jaw-droppingly soulful performance belying his age (18 at the time of recording).

What can’t Bartlett play on keyboards? Evidently, nothing. He performs the late Argentinean, nuevo-tango master Astor Piazzola’s "Vuelvo Al Sur" with a sly seductiveness. Bartlett also manages to slip into "Sue’s Dream/Gloucester Girl/The Baker" an instrumental break inspired by the late Michel Petrucciani, a French pianist who overcame the growth-inhibiting bone disease of osteogenesis imperfecta to play – at age 15 — with such jazz giants as trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Kenny Clarke.

Youth will be served, so don’t be surprised if Popcorn Behavior’s pianist pops up on the upcoming solo debut by Solas fiddler Winifred Horan, who has understandably taken a shine to his playing. She’s not the only Irish fiddler smitten by Bartlett’s talent, either. East Clare’s Martin Hayes described his playing as "not only prodigious but deep and insightful, mature beyond his years."

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