Scythian emerged several years ago in Washington, DC, got audiences stomping and waving up and down the I-95 corridor, and then started appearing at the big outdoor roots music festivals like North Carolina’s MerleFest. They play Celtic music, but two of the members are Ukrainian enough to speak Ukrainian, and all four have diverse backgrounds that include training in classical music and jazz. Percussionist Mike Ounallah–he’s of Jordanian background–sometimes plays a washboard, and the high–powered rhythms come mostly from rock and punk.
The band is all about getting people up and moving, and even the Ark’s generally contemplative crowd filled the club’s small dance floor the last time Scythian was in town. But this is not a rock band with a few hints of Celtic flavor, and not even an acoustic one. They play their Celtic fiddle straight, and their slower pieces are spacious things like “Ashokan Farewell,” not power ballads. What gives Scythian’s music its kick is tension between the driving rhythms and the detailed instrumental work, with explosive twin fiddle combinations at top speed from the classically trained Alexander Fedoryka and Josef Crosby.
Other tensions stir up all kinds of subsidiary energies in the music. This “immigrant road show,” as the band styles itself, plays a lot of Eastern European material, and combining that with Celtic tunes takes a bit of musical rigor along with all the group’s youthful energy. There’s gypsy fiddling, some bluegrass, a bit of klezmer, and even a tune called “Technoccordion.” The band members file the edges off these styles enough so that they hold together but not so much that they lose their individuality. And they can read the crowd and take the music in various directions as needed to ramp up the energy. Scythian’s late-night festival jams are legendary, and the jolt of adrenaline they bring should be a valuable thing in the gray stretches of March in Michigan.
Scythian comes to the Ark on Monday, March 8. The Ark’s programming has trended toward younger audiences since the retirement of longtime program director Dave Siglin a few years back, and appearances by bands like this one, which are at once tied to folk roots, attuned to global connections, and matched to the energy of young people, bode well for the club’s future.