Popcorn Behavior’s Hot Contra Dance Tunes, Journeywork and Strangest Dream

Naomi de Bruyn wrote this review.

pobe_popc150It is rather disconcerting at first to listen to this group. The music is impeccable and surpasses much of what I have heard in my life. This in itself is not all that remarkable. However, when you realize that the musicians are only 10, 13, and 14 years of age, it kind of makes you suck back and reload, if you know what I mean. These Vermont youngsters are all musical marvels who have been playing together for years! Actually, they are not so young now; that was their age at the time of the first recording six years ago. However, listening to it, I would never guess that it was a bunch of kids playing these great contradance tunes! There is a maturity to their playing that really is unbelievable, and totally enjoyable!

The name Popcorn Behavior actually comes from a Farmers Almanac, according to the liner notes. “In one of the articles there was a phrase that went something like this ‘… A certain sexual hormone was extracted from a human, and then injected into some mice. The mice pipped, squeaked, and exhibited ‘popcorn behaviour.”” The boys thought this was a good name for their tape, and subsequently, their group.

pobe_jour150Popcorn Behavior in the beginning were Sam Amidon on fiddle, Thomas Bartlett on piano, and Stefan Amidon on dumbeck. These days, there has been one addition to the line-up, and the musical skills have grown right along with the boys: Sam Amidon (fiddle), Thomas Bartlett (piano, piano accordion), Keith Murphy (vocals, guitar, mandolin, piano), and Stefan Amidon (dumbek, ghana drum, drum set).

Popcorn Behavior is a delightful tape of contra dance tunes, almost all of them traditional. This is an amazing endeavour for such young children, and they have much to be proud of. Their music is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

coverThe tape opens with “Sergeant Early’s Dream/Dinkey’s/Fahey’s.” Dumbek and piano provide a perfect backing for showcasing Sam’s fiddle. All the notes are clear and concise, and the toes begin to tap along to the catchy rhythm before you even realize it. The fourth track “Canatres de mi Tierra” is a brief but stunning solo, featuring Thomas Bartlett’s stunning piano playing. This young man is a virtuoso, no doubt about it. There are strong emotions carried along on every touch of the keys, as Thomas puts all of his being forth into the music. Another appealing track is “Handsome Young Maids/Cliffs of Moher.” It is a more sprightly piece, bringing to mind green-clad seaside cliffs, and fair young maidens stepping lightly along to the music. This track features the skills of piano and fiddle, and is altogether too short in my opinion, as I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The second release of Popcorn Behavior is entitled Journeywork, which could stand for any number of things. I would think that it would have something to do with the transition these “boys” were going through at the time. Not only were they growing up, but their music was evolving and maturing as well. There are a number of original tunes by Thomas Bartlett on this disc, and he definitely has skill as a composer as well as a pianist.

The first track is a moving one, “March of the Ents/The Diplodocus/Kid on the Mountain.” The March of the Ents was composed by Thomas, the second part by Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, and the third is from Tommy Peoples.

The second track is also worthy of mention, and not just because I do love the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! “Shadowfax/Bee’s Wax Sheep Skin/ Popcorn Behavior” is another set of tunes designed to get the blood flowing and the heart beating. You can’t help but know you’re alive when you listen to this! Shadowfax is another Thomas Bartlett original, and is also based on Tolkien, Shadowfax being the greatest horse on Middle Earth. The second part of this piece came from the Quebec group La Bottine Souriante, and the third was written for the group by Jay Ungar.

And in keeping with the trend, I really did like the seventh track, “The BrandywineRiver/Tom Bombadil’s/The Siege of Isengard.” All of these are original compositions by Thomas Bartlett, capturing the mood of Tolkien’s written work perfectly by bringing to mind the characters and situations they were composed for. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow/Bright blue his jacket is, and his boot are yellow/Nore has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master/His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

The third and latest release sees some vocal work from Keith Murphy, adding a new depth to Popcorn Behavior. Strangest Dream is a much more polished work than the earlier releases, in all aspects. Their music and liners are maturing along with the group, as well as their life outlooks. It has been quite interesting listening to them grow up. A very pleasant journey it has been. I can only wonder what else lies in store for us from this talented quartet!

But for now, on to this release. Out of the twelve tracks on this disc, only four are originals from Thomas Bartlett. This is a bit disappointing, as he does write some great music; however, there is nothing but great music on this disc.

The opening track, “The Old and In the Way Riff,” is one of Thomas’ original compositions. He couldn’t think of a suitable name for it, so Sam named it after a bluegrass band which included Jerry Garcia. It’s a rather teasing, sensual melody, which has the fiddle and the piano taking turns as the emotional forerunner. Very dramatic and seductive.

The third track allows Keith to stretch his vocal cords, and extol the virtues of ploughmen in “The Ploughman.” This particular track was taken from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, and is the only known one which mentions the ploughman’s sweetness of breath, according to the liner notes. It has a lazy hip-swaying melody, which is emphasized by the drums.

“Connachtman’s Rambles/The Fairy Jig” caught my fancy, perhaps because of the exquisite fiddle work, or in part because of the name. The first part is a fiddle and piano duet, and the two instruments twist and writhe about each other in a very pleasing manner. According to the liner notes, “The Fairy Jig was taken from a recording by the great Donegal-style fiddler Paddy Glackin.” It is a simple heartfelt track, which leaves a smile in the heart.

I am curious to see where this talented group will go from here; the possibilities are seemingly endless. And they appeal to all ages. While I was listening to them I had both daughter and father comment positively.

This is rarer in my household than one might think, too! Give these boys a listen, and you’ll be caught in the spell of their music.

You can visit their web site here.
Editors’ Note: nearly a generation later and the band is still around though they go by the name of Assembly now according to one contradance website.

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