It wasn’t quite the full complement of banjo master Tony Trischka’s usual band. Lead vocalist-guitarist Michael Daves was on a leave of absence so he could hit the road his mandolin phenom Chris Thile to support their new duo album.
Normally, there’s not much point in playing a gig if your lead singer isn’t in tow, but the main attraction here isn’t the guy centerstage with the microphone. Rather it’s the guy nudged off to stage left playing the five-string banjo with seemingly boundless imagination, ease and grace.
Tony Trischka is simply a mindbogglingly good banjo player. I’ve known that since my high school days in Buffalo when I occasionally had the great good fortune to sit in with him in the South Happiness Street Society Skiffle Band. I’ve seen him play dozens of times since those days, and he never fails to amaze, no matter the band – Breakfast Special, Country Cooking, Skyline, Country Granola, Monroe Doctrine and lots more. Heck, I remember sitting in the crowd at some cramped Greenwich Village nightspot marveling as he played jazz all night long with flutist Jeremy Steig and bassist Eddie Gomez.
So the fact that Daves was unavailable didn’t really seem to slow down Trischka or the rest of his band, Territory, featuring bassist Skip Ward and fiddler Mike Barnett. And while stand-in singer-guitarist Brandon Rickman (of Nashville’s Lonesome River Band) was just a bit hesitant at the start of the show, he quickly gained confidence – yodelling during a Jimmie Rodgers gem, wailing through the moody, mysterious “Rain and Snow” and galloping through Bill Monroe’s classic “Molly and Tenbrooks.”
Barnett took a turn at the vocal mic, too, on “Dark Hollow.” And Barnett and Ward both took turns duetting with Trischka – Barnett on the old-time fiddle standard “Sally Goodin” and Ward on the jaunty, ragtimey “Amanda and Her Amazing Dancing Ducks.”
But it was Trischka’s show, no question. He showcased an inventive medley of three songs, each one written to be played exclusively on a single string of the banjo. He led the charge through the Steve Martin banjo instrumental “The Crow.” (Trischka, by the way, produced Martin’s new album, “Rare Bird Alert.”) And he picked it old-school, too, digging into the classic bluegrass repertoire with Flatt & Scruggs’ “The Farewell Blues.”
And it wasn’t all about blazing fast speed up and down the banjo’s fretboard. In fact, another of the night’s highlight’s was the graceful and lovely, but also undeniably complex “Escher’s Waltz.” Trischka explained the song by saying, “It starts in one place and it ends up in another… and I don’t know how it got there.”
Hot Mustard, a co-ed quartet featuring two banjo players (Bill Jubett and Bruce Stockwell), kicked off the evening with a 35-minute opening set that stretched from Jimmy Martin’s bluegrass instrumental nugget “Theme Time” to Eric Andersen’s ramblin’ anthem “Dusty Boxcar Wall.”
And they returned at the end of the night to join Trischka and Territory for a final encore romp through “The Bon Aqua Blues.” Noting that Ward had switched from bass to a small banjo ukulele, Trischka noted, “We’ve got three and a half banjos up here.”
Of course, when one of them is Trischka’s, the rest are pretty superfluous.
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
NOTE: Tony Trischka & Territory (with Michael Daves back at the microphone) will be back in Nippertown to perform at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival at the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill on Saturday, July 16.
TONY TRISCHKA & TERRITORY SET LIST
Blue Yodel Albany
Looking for the Light
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Mike Barnett solo)
18/The Belated Wedding Hoedown (Tony Trischka solo)
Dime Store Rings (Brandon Rickman solo)
Rain and Snow
Molly and Tenbrooks
Amanda and Her Amazing Dancing Ducks/The Third String/The First String
The Farewell Blues
The Bon Aqua Blues (with Hot Mustard)