Contemporary Celtic: The Moxie Strings at The Ark


Individually, all three members of The Moxie Strings have played at The Ark many times before, backing other musicians, but on Sunday, August 13, they will be making their headliner debut there as a trio.

Diana Ladio, Alison Lynn, and Fritz McGirr have long been sought after as accompanists and sidemen by bands and musicians who play in a variety of styles, but for the last six years have put most of their energy into teaching, touring, and recording with the unique brand of contemporary Celtic-influenced, rock-inflected music that is their trio’s trademark. Think Riverdance, and then think again.

Fiddler Ladio, cellist Lynn, and percussionist, McGirr, all U-M School of Music graduates, are highly accomplished, very versatile instrumentalists. “We’re not going to sing for you,” announced Ladio at their recent Top of the Park show at this year’s Summer Festival, but they managed to make their instruments do just about everything other than vocalize.

Ladio plays the traditional Irish airs, jigs, and reels acoustically, with authority and authenticity. But she can also run her fiddle through a variety of effects pedals and impersonate a wailin’ rock guitar or make a huge variety of label-less musical sounds.

Lynn plays while standing -- not something you see most cellists do. She’s not playing a typical cello, either, but something that looks like a board with strings that hangs from a strap around her neck. “It’s an electric cello,“ explained Ladio at the Top of the Park concert. “We get asked what it is all the time.” With her electronic options, Lynn can still imitate an ordinary cello, but more often, using a variety of non-traditional plucking and bowing techniques, plus her range of audio effects, she manages to sound like a one-woman guitar/bass rhythm section.

McGirr is adept at the conventional trap set, but also the Irish bodhran, Latin cajon, and the African djembe. His eclectic array of hand percussion instruments and techniques further emphasizes the propulsive rhythms of The Moxie Strings. The trio has a much bigger sound than you’d expect out of those instruments. They punch well beyond their weight class and sound much closer to a rock band than to the first impression image of a folk or classical group they may project. Besides, they are also way more dynamic visually than you’d expect from a group with that instrumentation. Ladio and Lynn roam back and forth across the front of the stage, constantly swaying, bending, twisting and gyrating, while the seated McGirr is a four-limbed whirlwind. Their movements echo and mimic each other and their music, reinforcing and elaborating on the intricate conversations of their instruments.

The Moxie Strings' third CD, Outlet, released last year, has some traditional American fiddle tunes such as “Elzic’s Farewell,” the bluegrass medley “Michigrass Set," Irish ones like “The Mason’s Apron,” and “The Lover’s Waltz," the beautiful, traditional-sounding Jay Ungar and Molly Mason piece. But the CD also features their original pieces. There is Ladio’s “Eileen,” which Ladio says was “inspired by the great Eileen Ivers” of Riverdance fiddling fame, and parts of which sound like atmospheric electronic music; Lynn’s “East of Here,” in which she makes her cello sound like a fuzz guitar, and “Short Fuse,” which features McGirr’s inventive drumming. “Stir-Crazy,” which was previously released as a single in 2015, and was written collaboratively by the trio, is a series of short catchy rock phrases; it has become a popular teaching tool in many schools nationally. Their “Pop Tune,” also written collaboratively, is “The Moxie Strings' commentary on 21st-century pop music,” says Ladio. The tune features an intricate clapping part, which the audience at the TOP learned enthusiastically.

Sometimes The Moxie Strings mix the traditional with the original but give both a contemporary treatment. The “Hi, I’m Helen” medley of traditional and original reels has a drum solo and some trading fours -- not arrangement elements typically heard in an Irish pub.

They pride themselves on creating a mostly “live” sound on the recording. “On a couple of the tracks we include other instruments or add a fleeting third string part,” says Ladio, “But we tried hard to make sure we could re-create the album live without missing much.” Their composing, and arranging, is often a collaborative effort. “Often one of us will write a part and play it for the group before a show or in sound check,” she says. “Then we'll jam on it for a bit and brainstorm. At that point, a lot of writing is done individually but knowing that it will be adapted when we get everyone together for rehearsal. A lot of times our collaborative writing process is based on what we feel like the show is lacking; more Irish tunes, more rock tunes, more effects sounds, etc.”

After this Ark show, the trio has a busy fall and winter schedule ahead of them. “Our winter tours will take us to Colorado, the Boston area, and Alaska next January, along with a Christmas tour in Michigan,” says Ladio. All will be a combination of teaching and playing shows. Not the warmest choices but they will certainly be an experience!”

Sandor Slomovits is an Ann Arbor-based writer and musician known for his work in Gemini and San & Emily.

The Moxie Strings play The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, on Sunday, August 13. Doors open at 7 pm; the show starts at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15.