IT'S A LONG way from busking for gas money in Old Town Alexandria to appearing in M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller, "The Village," but that's the story of the local Celtic band Scythian (Sith-ee-yin). Throw in a taping of the upcoming "Real World" series in Philadelphia and a new weekly gig at the popular Chinatown pub Fado (808 Seventh St. NW; 202-789-0066), and it begins to sound more like a fairy tale.
On paper, Scythian is a traditional Irish group: the lineup includes two classically trained fiddlers, and the twenty-something musicians play accordion, guitar, electric bass and mandolin. In concert, though, Scythian proves to be one of Washington's most energetic and eclectic bands.
One night at Fado mixes spirited takes on traditional rebel tunes like "Come Out Ye Black and Tans" and covers of Irish punks-with-pennywhistles the Pogues with klezmer-influenced versions of Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell" and They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"; a Celtic-tinged interpretation of Charlie Daniels's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"; a careening, double-time "Danny Boy"; and a take on "Wild Thing" that features a fiddle singing over the familiar, thumping bass line.
"It's been a big struggle for us," says guitarist-accordionist-vocalist Danylo Fedoryka. "We've played 40 bars in one year, and got a lot of experience, but the first thing we're asked is, 'Can you play the typical covers?' We say 'No, we want to present something that's different.' " Between songs, the band leads the crowd in drinking games, toasts friends and passes tambourines around for audience members who want to play along. Things may get a bit hokey -- especially if you cringe at audience-participation numbers like "The Wild Rover" -- but the band's enthusiasm is contagious, and shows seem to end with everyone dancing, jumping around or hoisting glasses.
Despite their modern influences, it was traditional jigs and reels that helped Scythian land spots in "The Village." At a casting call last year, a crew member "liked their look," so the Fedoryka brothers (Danylo and fiddler-vocalist Alex) and fiddler Joe Crosby scored roles as extras -- with the promise of an on-screen musical performance. While director Shyamalan ultimately went with solo piano music in the film instead of Celtic tunes, all got varying bits of screen time as extras in the titular village, and more importantly, networking during the two-month shoot helped the band get slots at well-known Philadelphia pubs like Finnegan's Wake and the Plough and Stars, where MTV requested the band perform during the taping of an episode of "The Real World."
"The whole reason we went is because we wanted to play music [in the film], but even though we didn't get in the movie as musicians, we got more than we ever imagined," Alex Fedoryka says.
The four members of Scythian were introduced to music at a young age. Alex and Danylo began studying violin and piano, respectively, at 3. Crosby picked up violin at 5, which is when drummer Alex "Animal" Culdell began performing with his father, a Scottish piper. The Fedorykas are an especially musical family. All 10 children learned to play an instrument, and their mother Irene graduated from Juilliard. Alex went to Japan to study the Suzuki method, and the family ensemble performed at venues such as the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap.
But, Alex explains, he eventually grew tired of "rigid" classical music and lost his passion for the violin. It was Celtic music that lured him back.
"About four years ago . . . I was staying over at our buddy Pat Kilroy's, and he gave me some CDs with great [Celtic] fiddlers -- Eileen Ivers, Frankie Gavin," Alex says. "I'd never heard anything like it. I'd only heard the sing-song Irish [pub] music, but as soon as I heard [the fiddlers], I went home and learned everything off the CDs. Like a month later, I got my brother and said, 'You've got to listen to these tunes.' He learned guitar so he could play them, and it was his idea to start busking for gas money."
Setting up outside the Torpedo Factory art center, the Fedoryka brothers were later joined by Crosby, who they've known since they were children -- their fathers, immigrants from Ukraine and Austria, are friends who earned doctorates together. As they played for dollar bills and spare change, the trio began to explore folk music beyond the Irish style picked up from newly discovered CDs. Not only did playing on the street make them tighter, practiced performers, it honed a certain style of stagecraft.
"As a street musician, you have to do anything you can to get people to stop for a second," Alex says. "We started out playing Irish music, threw in some bluegrass, then some Gypsy-type stuff and Ukrainian music -- whatever could keep people standing there and keep a crowd."
They began interacting with the passersby, giving egg-size shakers to children and encouraging them to play along.
Says Danylo: "We got people from toddlers to 90-year-old people to punk skaters coming up to us. There's something about the Irish music that people gravitated towards, and we gravitated towards, and eventually it became our own sound."
To learn more about Irish music, Alex spent four months in Ireland in 2002, watching and experimenting. "My sister was living in Dublin for a couple years," he says, "so I hung out in Dublin long enough to make friends with people, but I was playing in rock bands, I was playing in Gypsy bands, some straight-up singer-songwriter rock bands.
"I'd go to all kinds of [jam] sessions. I busked a lot. I met a lot of young traditional musicians. There's a revival of the driving Celtic rhythms, and I got caught up in that."
Scythian continues to be one of the hardest-working bands on the Irish pub circuit. Friday, for example, they're at Finn Mac Cool's (713 Eighth St. SE; 202-547-7100). Thursday, it's back to Fado. On Aug. 13, Scythian plays the Maryland BBQ Bash in Bel Air. Then Aug. 17, the band makes its debut at Iota (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-8340), heads back to Fado two days later, then has a weekend engagement at Flanagan's (7637 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-986-1007). A new album should be released in a few weeks.
"We're aware that there's something going on, and we're having a tremendous amount of fun, but we don't know where this is taking us," Alex says. "We're not focusing on one thing. It started with Celtic music, but then we got into the Jewish music, and as soon as people hear that, they start doing leg kicks. Bluegrass has a different feel, but the end result is always the same. . . . What I want is the feel of a village square dance or a country dance, where people can get together, they can drink, they can dance and not care if they make fools of themselves. The point is just to have a good time."
MADDEN MADDEN WORLD
The Madden NFL video game series is a sensation like no other -- the best-selling sports franchise of all time counts pro athletes and armchair quarterbacks among its most rabid fans, but you know all that if you read the Weekend cover story about it last October. And if you spend hours playing Madden NFL against the computer or your best friend, you should check out "Madden Challenge 2005," a virtual football season played out by more than 100 local competitors.
"We've done [smaller Madden] tournaments at Clarendon Grill," explains organizer Vincent King, "but I'd have friends over to play Madden, and I thought it would be cool to have people come in as different teams and play the whole [NFL] schedule."
Vincent King and his business partner Frank King (no relation) are organizing four separate 32-team leagues that will simulate the full 16-game NFL season on PlayStation 2 consoles every Tuesday night, beginning Sept. 7.
Chosen game sites are Tom Tom (2335 18th St. NW; 202-518-6667), Crystal City Sports Pub (529 S. 23rd St. Arlington; 703-521-8215), Clarendon Grill (1101 N. Highland St. Arlington; 703-524-7455) and the Pour House (319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-546-1001).
Think you could lead the Redskins to glory? Good luck -- literally. Players don't choose a franchise, probably to prevent everyone from picking the Eagles, Panthers or Falcons and avoiding the Chargers and Cardinals. Instead, there's a lottery that involves drawing balls out of a bag. "You could be the first [one to choose] and draw team Number 32 (the lowest-seeded team)," King explains. "It's fair."
This league's not for the meek -- games are played in four five-minute quarters on Madden's highest setting. And because gameplay is cumulative, if your pixilated Michael Vick goes down with a broken leg in Week 2, he could be out for the season. No trades are allowed.
Registration runs from Sunday through Aug. 20, or whenever leagues at each establishment are full. It may be possible, for example, that Tom Tom's league has room after the Clarendon Grill's slots are closed. There is a $150 entry fee per team, with prizes awarded at the end of the season; in addition to rewards for the winning team and runners-up, there will be extras for the teams that rack up the most rushing or receiving yards, for example. League-specific Web sites will keep track of schedules, results, stats and injuries. Call 703-675-6757 or 202-345-7866 for more information.
"We want people to get out to these bars, have fun and game with people you probably haven't gamed with before," King says.