Lissa Schneckenburger,
Lissa Schneckenburger
(Footprint, 2005)

One comes to expect excellent fiddlers to sprout like wildflowers in Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton. Sometimes it's much more exciting, as a reviewer, to discover talent coming from someplace less thoroughly identified with brilliance in the field.

Right now, my attention is focused on New England, where Maine native Lissa Schneckenburger is causing a storm.

(Isn't it great? Could the name Schneckenburger be any less Irish-sounding? And yet, it's heartening to see the music spreading and growing in the hands of blatantly non-Celtic people.)

Lissa's online resume includes performing with the bands Phantom Power, Spin and Halali (all currently, apparently) and formerly with Mad Pudding, Muse and Wake the Neighbors. But this self-titled CD (her third, but the first to come to my attention) is far from a solo effort, although Lissa leads the way on both fiddle and vocals. Joining her are a wide array of musicians who add strong layers of support to Lissa's arrangements.

They are Core DiMario on double bass, Eric Merrill on viola and harmony vocals, Keith Murphy on guitar and mandolin, Matt Heaton on electric guitar, Natalie Haas on cello, Shannon Heaton on flute, Stefan Amidon on percussion and Ted Davis on guitar.

But let's talk about Lissa, who sparkles in the forefront of the music with a fresh, appealing sound. Although largely traditional in approach, the CD is dotted with original songs and compositions, proving Lissa to be a force worth remembering when looking for new material in the Celtic canon. She starts fresh right from the opening track, "Melissa without the 'Me'/Eric's Birthday," and charges on from there. "The River," also original, flows just like its name. "Halafl/Mona's" are free and lilting, with a relaxed motion I associate with New England.

She's also got the background, with a musical resume that many musicians would envy. Active on the Maine folk scene from a young age, she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 2001. She runs her own label, Footprint Records, and her tours have taken her far beyond the boundaries of North America to include Scotland, Russia, Holland, Denmark and Belgium. (I am kicking myself to learn that she played at the Celtic Classic festival in Bethlehem, Pa. -- just a stone's throw from my own stomping grounds -- and I missed seeing her live.)

The disc itself is pure listening pleasure, like a cool and refreshing breeze on a sultry afternoon. The first time I listened, I had to restrain myself from hitting the repeat button on some tracks because I was equally eager to hear what was coming.

Lissa's fiddling is sweet and precise, engaging but never too flashy. She works well with her band, leading them in tightly arranged sets that are solid without being overproduced -- and it's always clear just who is the star of this show.

Vocals are the bane of many fiddlers who are not content to be solely instrumentalists, but that's never a problem here. Lissa's voice is gentle but strong, and she wields it on five of the CD's 10 tracks. The first is "The Irish Girl," a sailor's lament for a girl he met ashore. Lissa's adaptation of "Dear Companion" is deliciously dark and mysterious. Bob Coltman's "Before They Close the Minstrel Show" is slow, melancholy and absolutely beautiful.

Next time you're in the market for a good Celtic fiddler/singer to experience, look to Maine. Lissa Schneckenburger has what you're looking for.

by Tom Knapp
10 December 2005

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