The violin's alter ego, the fiddle, came out of the case and into its own Thursday night. In the absence of high-powered classical concertos and chamber pieces, the second Violin Congress concert at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre was an unpretentious gig rather than a recital. Traditional Irish music, western swing, jazz and curious folk hybrids made up the bill, revealing many players with great chops and attitudes to match.
American fiddler Liz Carroll and Irish guitarist Mick Moloney made simplicity a virtue in their set of reels, gigs and airs. Both added foot-stomping accompaniment where appropriate, heart-rending sensitivity when the mood switched to a lament. In these situations, Carroll's artful note slides became especially poignant.
Fiddle champion Junior Daugherty of New Mexico evoked the memory of Bob Wills, if not the intensity of the Texas Playboys. A six-piece backup band, including electric guitar and pedal steel, disappointed only because it was too stiff. Perhaps the group needed a club atmosphere to cut loose. Daugherty uncorked some pretty hot licks in an old Cajun tune, "Draggin' the Bow."
As for breaking down musical barriers, the Really Eclectic String Quartet and String Fever showed that genres can be mixed freely without negative side effects. This quartet deviates from the standard format in several ways. String bass replaces the cello, and all musicians play standing. Works by Thelonious Monk and Mongo Santamaria received a deft bluesy touch, as did an original "Klezified," which skillfully put the klezmer sound through the wringer. An impressive arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Echoes of Harlem" produced hornlike tones between violin and viola. Joel Smirnoff of the Juilliard String Quartet did a surprise walk-on, playing third fiddle for two heated Romanian dances.
String Fever, 13 strong with a drummer to provide the big beat, is likely the most unself-consciously swinging string band anywhere. The group, led by fiddler Marin Alsop, has impeccable credentials and incredible versatility. Two Ellington favorites, "Mood Indigo" and "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," were exemplary, bringing a spontaneous feel to a taut ensemble.