Preparing for that annual celebration of green beer and off-key renditions of “Danny Boy,” Dan Fedoryka used a recent night at Ireland’s Four Fields in D.C. to enlist a beer-swilling crowd into what he called “Paddy’s Day Boot Camp.” It was a brief seminar that he claimed had a focused set of goals: drinking and partying.
“Do you want us to allow you to drink water all night?” he asked the audience. “Do you want us to serve Shirley Temples?”
"No!" shouted the audience.
“You’re a bad influence,” said Leks Fedoryka from behind his fiddle.
The Fedoryka brothers are half of Scythian, which is certainly a band of influence (whether good or bad is a matter of individual contemplation) as indicated by a recent WAMMIE (the Washington Area Music Association’s annual awards) for D.C. Fan Favorite. The boys of Scythian — Danylo (Dan) Fedoryka on guitar, vocals and accordion, Oleksander (Leks) Fedoryka on violin, mandolin, harmonica, bass and vocals, Josef (Joe) Crosby on violin, bass and vocals and percussionist/drummer Mike Ounnallah — did not begin with the bar scene. In 2002, Dan, Leks and Joe were street performers in Old Town Alexandria near their Del Ray home, where Dan said they developed their performing style: high-energy, with lots of audience interaction.
“We would make enough money to go blow it that night,” he said. When the crowds on the street began reaching 100, they realized they had something good going. Three years ago, they all quit their jobs to play full-time.
Crosby, for one, didn’t look back. “I just jumped right in,” he said.
Scythian has made big strides in the local music scene over the last year. Besides the WAMMIE, the band threw a huge New Year’s bash, is finishing a new CD, and recently shared a stage with Eire rockers Flogging Molly at the Mid-Atlantic Shamrock Fest in RFK Stadium. The band has amassed a dedicated following from Manhattan to the Nation’s Capital, with regular shows at places such as Stout in New York to Flanagan’s in Bethesda and Fado’s in D.C.
They used to carry their own gear and manage their own gigs, but now they have both roadies and a manager, said Dan Fedoryka.
“This summer we’ll be touring,” said Ounnallah. “We’re going to play for more people, travel more.”
They are booked for over 20 festivals this year, including Floydfest in Floyd, Va., the Dublin Irish Fest in Ohio, and Musikfest 2007 in Bethlehem, Pa. This St. Patrick’s Day, they are throwing their own party, the all-day Big Jig in D.C.
CELTIC MUSIC attracted Leks Fedoryka from the first time he heard Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster at a college party.
“Initially, it was the fiddle players and the traditional music they play,” he said. “That’s really what got me excited and passionate about it.”
Although traditional greats like MacMaster, Frankie Gavin and fiddler Eileen Ivers are among the band’s strongest influences, it’s not quite accurate to call Scythian a Celtic band. Over the last couple years, Dan said, the band has used their pub gigs and two CDs — “Dance at the Crossroads” and 2004’s “Aidan’s Orbit” — to “ferment” their sound. In that time, the band has picked up other influences, most notably from their individual backgrounds.
“We’re all sons of immigrants,” said Dan. The Fedoryka brothers are Ukranian, Crosby is half Austrian and Ounnallah’s father Jordanian. At the Four Fields show, the song list included “Fields of Athenry” and “Donegal Reel,” but also a Ukranian gypsy fiddle tune, the Middle Eastern “Malabar Train” and John Denver’s “Country Roads.” The boys name other influences: Ukrainian punk band Gogol Bordello, Big Bad Religion, AC/DC, Latin and Afro-Cuban music.
Even the more traditional Celtic tunes have Scythian’s personal touch. One of the most hallowed songs in Irish and Irish-American culture, “Danny Boy” was long overdue for a makeover, said Dan Fedoryka, and the boys were not afraid to do it. Where typically “Danny Boy” is sung plaintively with minimal accompaniment, Scythian used an Eastern-European chord progression, added guitar and drums and made a rock-and-roll version that seems to channel Van Morrison.
OUNNALLAH HAS A MASTER’S in jazz studies from the University of Maryland, while Crosby, Dan and Leks grew up steeped in classical music. The Fedorykas’ mother studied at Juilliard, while Crosby's grandfather was a composer in Salzburg. Dan Fedoryka played classical piano, while Leks Fedoryka and Crosby played violin. Ounnallah, who has been touring since he was 19, began playing with the band in 2005. He has played in nearly every style of music, he said, from salsa to hip-hop to bluegrass and now, the mix that Joe calls “immigrant trailer-park rock revolution.”
Before Scythian, both Crosby and Leks had become burnt-out on classical music performance. And so what started out as an Irish pub band, said Crosby, has allowed its members to exercise their musical talents without too much formality and stiffness.
It has also allowed Crosby to experience an onstage face-plant and a mysterious broken nose; the band has lived through flipping their trailer on the interstate and almost getting shot in Philadelphia, said Dan Fedoryka.
But most of the excitement comes from performing, said Dan. “You’re playing a pub one night, then playing for the Prime Minister of Ireland [at the D.C. National Ireland Fund Gala], then with Flogging Molly,” he said.
With packed venues, a third CD, local success and 22 upcoming festivals, Scythian is now working toward an ultimate goal: a festival band. Dan envisions “success separate from the Man,” much like Phish or the Grateful Dead, and although bar playing and festival playing are fairly different in their styles, the band’s infectious live show seems to lend itself to this goal.
“We make it a point to throw our entire soul into a performance,” said Leks. “Interaction is a major part of the show.”
It is for this reason, it seems, that the band is so popular. They take time to talk to fans between sets and involve them in their shows.
They are, after all, playing for the crowd.
“That’s what it’s about, if you can get [the audience] for a second,” said Crosby. “If you can take them somewhere else, you’ve succeeded.”