Most people probably think of the banjo, whenever they happen to think about the banjo, in the context of bluegrass music or as the butt of a joke.
The first of those ideas is reasonable, while the other, from the vantage point of someone who actually likes the instrument, can be mean and small-minded (when it’s not funny).
The actual history of the banjo started in Africa before showing up in the American hill country, New Orleans jazz spots and on Vaudeville stages. Early jazz players like Johnny St. Cyr, Earl Snowden and Eddie Condon were mainly time keepers, while the flamboyant Eddie Peabody was a master technician and deemed the “King of the Banjo” back in the 1920s. Uncle Dave Macon and Doc Boggs were major country music stars in the early days of radio and records.
Bela Fleck and five fellow advocates for the banjo showed up Thursday night in Asbury Hall to celebrate the variety of musical styles that can be made to embrace the banjo. It was to be a meeting of minds, fingers and idioms that one seldom gets to witness.
Audience members were treated to a number of combinations in addition to solo spotlights. Someone could be doing a couple of tunes, either solo or backed up by a stellar quartet of musicians led by Russ Barenberg, when another banjo picker would join the fun. The possibility that you could see and hear two, three, four or five players taking turns on a tune was pretty high.
There was a classical music moment when Fleck, who played his own Banjo Concerto with the BPO earlier this year, and Noam Pikelny from the Punch Brothers played a Mozart tune as a duet. Later on in the concert, Eric Weissberg played a version of “Dueling Banjos” with guitarist Barenberg that included a snippet of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Bill Keith, who developed a melodic variation of the three-finger style espoused by Earl Scruggs, played a medley of fiddle tunes going back to his days with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Tony Trischka was introduced by Fleck, his former student, and then went into a solo jazz-tinged improvisation he called “Until the Government Reopens”. Richie Stearns, the lone old-style “claw hammer” (aka “frailing”) practitioner to grace the stage, was joined by Fleck and Trischka for a tune inspired by Doc Boggs called “Vein of Coal.”
While it was a night to celebrate banjo playing in the multi-generational hands of some master musicians, notice should also be paid to the supporting musicians who brought their own skills to the party and were given plenty of space to showcase them.
Barenberg was fantastic throughout, and mandolin player Jesse Cobb from the Infamous Stringdusters was consistently fine. Fiddler Casey Driessen was a bit undermiked but when he could cut his way into the sonic mix revealed a fluid style of playing that owed much to the lineage established by Bill Monroe’s fiddlers. Bassist Corey DiMario even managed to get a few jazz-tinged solos throughout the course of the show.
All in all, it was a good evening for fans of the instrument.