By Lisa O. Monroe
Take six talented musicians who work at Colonial Williamsburg by day and love to play traditional Celtic music in their spare time, who like to experiment with sounds and unexpected twists, and top it all off with an unusual name.
That’s Poisoned Dwarf.
“We stick with the traditional Irish music, but we have fun with the arrangements and what we do with the tunes,” said fiddler Wayne Hill, a member since 2005. Often after a performance, he said, the band will be approached by young adults or teens who say they enjoy the “feisty approach” the band takes with some of the songs.
Hill is a balladeer in Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City, as is Stephen Christoff, vocalist for the band.
“A lot of the Celtic groups out there now add electronic instruments. We play in a traditional style, but add to the arrangements and focus on each set of music,” said the band’s percussionist Lance Pedigo.
“We find tunes that work well going into the next tune — either by key or rhythm or theme. That’s the art of arranging.”
Most of the melodies date back centuries, he said. Celtic music appeals to a wide and diverse audience of all ages and families, said Hill, and every member of the band loves the music.
Tom DeRose, who works with military programs for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, is one of the founders of the band and plays the Irish flute and accordion. The band uses traditional Irish instruments like the penny whistle, the bohdran (an Irish frame drum), the Irish flute and the uilleann pipes. But DeRose noted that they like to “add different world culture instruments” as well, such as the octave mandolin.
The music isn’t all Irish either. The band also plays music from Cape Breton, Canada; Brittany, France; and Scotland, DeRose said.
“I grew up in the Fife and Drum playing that kind of music since age 10,” said DeRose. “It instilled in me a love of the British Isles and that type of music.”
In fact, three members of the band – DeRose, Pedigo and Stewart Pittman – all grew up playing in Colonial Williamsburg’s Fife and Drum from the time they were youngsters and through high school.
They use some of the music they learned in the corps in the Poisoned Dwarf repertoire, according to Pedigo.
“We all have a wide range of musical interests,” said Hill, who introduces traditional Irish music to his middle-school classical guitar and music theory students at the Williamsburg Montessori School.
He is a Bach fan who was taught to play his first instrument — the piano — by his grandmother Adah Pope, before moving on to the guitar and violin. He studied Baroque violin for several years, and picked up fiddling by what he calls “osmosis” from listening to traditional Irish music and Irish fiddlers like Tommy Peoples.
After graduating from James Madison University, he traveled to New York, New Orleans, Japan and Hawaii playing music ranging from classical to rock to jazz. He now travels the country with the Fife and Drum, as well as the Middlesex County Volunteers out of Boston, performing at military tattoos all over the world including Switzerland, Scotland and Australia — and Norfolk, Va.
Eric Hunter, who founded the band with DeRose, comes from a punk rock background. He plays the guitar and banjo for Poisoned Dwarf, and works by day with the Rare Breeds program.
Stewart Pittman, the third member to join the original band, plays the whistles, bohdran, uilleann pipes, and bones. He also works with the Fife and Drum.
Pittman created the band’s name, which is the title of an old pipe tune. Combined with the photo of an old, gnarled-looking Irish piper who was believed to have lived across three centuries (being born in the late 1700s and dying at the turn of the 20th century), the name “Poisoned Dwarf” just seemed to fit.
When the band was first formed in 2002, the original members were Hunter, DeRose, Pittman, and two College of William and Mary students who moved on after graduating from college, about the same time Pedigo and Hill joined.
The five men played have played together since 2005, adding a new member, vocalist Stephen Christoff, about a year ago.
Christoff, a balladeer with Colonial Williamsburg, helped to round out the band, said Hill. Christoff had sung with the band off and on before officially joining.
“We’ve all been friends with Stephen a long time and he’s such a perfect fit,” said Hill. “Stephen is a very good singer and songwriter in his own right.”
Having a vocalist has allowed the band to move forward with producing its third CD, which band members hope to record this summer. Like the other CDs, “Six Shades of Green” and “Bolt the Door,” the third CD will be comprised of traditional Irish music with a twist. It also will feature Christoff on vocals.
“Because of Stephen, we can now look at melodies with lyrics,” said Pedigo.
While many of the band members balance their full-time jobs and families and other musical pursuits, they take time to perform as Poisoned Dwarf at festivals and events. They also play annually at The Corner Pocket in New Town for St. Patrick’s Day, but for the most part, prefer family venues over bars and taverns.
At the Revolutionary City, they hold an annual concert in early December at the Kimball Theatre, and a holiday-themed Celtic concert at the DeWitt Wallace Museum’s Hennage Auditorium. For the third year, the band performed at the March 15 “Pints & Pairings” event, which Hill describes as a lot of fun for the guests as well as for the band members.
Is this the first band of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation employees? DeRose said he’s heard of other bands composed of some employees, but doesn’t know whether there’s been another one like “Poisoned Dwarf” that is entirely Foundation employees.
Lisa O. Monroe is a Richmond-based freelance writer.