Is That Sheldon Silver Playing the Banjo?
NY Banjo: A Five-String Summit
Review by Paul Jossman
1000 banjo geeks filled the Hart Theatre at The Egg for the long-awaited (was it really 10 years?) return of the NY Banjo Summit – a collection of the many of the country’s most accomplished and influential five-string banjo players who happen to reside in or have strong ties to New York State. The line-up consisted of: Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Mac Benford, Pete Wernick, Richie Stearns and Tony Trischka. Wow!
For people with only a passing interest in banjo music, it’s fair to say that they might think it all sounds alike. The banjo is considered a limited, “happy instrument” and not one’s first choice if planning to write music that was going to, oh shall we say, plunge headlong into the inky depths of the crippled American spirit. This limiting characterization is ridiculous, and this sold-out show blew it right out of the water.
This crowd had a discerning ear and got a broad sampling of the (currently known) range of expressions and stylings of the five-string banjo. Each artist got a featured slot in the show and played whatever they had in mind in countless configurations with or without the back-up band – guitarist Russ Barenberg, mandolinist Jesse Cobb, bassist Corey Dimario and fab fiddler Alex Hargreaves – and/or the other banjo players sitting in. Things were changing up all the time. Early in the show Eric Weissberg warned that we would be on the receiving end of “2 ½ million notes”… and he was right on the money.
After starting with a full group jam on “Cripple Creek,” everyone exited, and Pete Wernick started the individual contributor portions of the night. He sang a very touching song about his wife Ruthie and then played some duets with his former Country Cooking bandmate Tony Trischka, including the ’70s original “Tequila Mockingbird.” They were just getting started and already had used up about 80,000 notes of their allotment.
Up next, Bill Keith started out recalling his confusion and amazement on first hearing recordings of Earl Scruggs changing the pitch of the strings on his banjo mid-song. He then played “Rand Lynn Rag” and “Earl’s Breakdown” to show his mastery of the technique as well. He is the inventor of specially geared Keith Tuners that make this technique easier, and he mentioned that running that business is his principal “day job” now. With various of his sidekicks, he also demonstrated his namesake “Keith style” melodic banjo technique on a long medley that included “Little Beggar Man,” “Devil’s Dream,” “Lost Indian” and several other songs. Note count grew to 250,000.
Mac Bedford is an old-time banjo player who plays in a gentle clawhammer and soft (without picks) finger-picking style. He sticks to the roots that all of the others progressed from. You could hear a pin drop during his soulful authentic rendition of Stephen Foster’s old minstrel tune “Angeline the Baker.” Simple, essential, perfect. His take on the old string band song “Hang Me” with Richie Stearns was equally right on. This stuff was simple, he might have added 2,500 notes to the count.
Eric Weissberg was next and… wait a minute, who is that guy? No, it can’t be. Is that Sheldon Silver playing the banjo? Although possessing considerably more swing, he had an uncanny resemblance to the NY Assembly Speaker. He is the senior member of this banjo ensemble and has more session and side-man credits than, well, than the number of notes played so far. First exposed to the banjo as a child by Pete Seeger at summer camp, he went to Julliard and can actually read music which, it is fair to say, hasn’t hurt his playing one bit. He pushed the note count briskly forward with an excessively proficient “Salt Creek” with Keith and Wernick. Later, he closed with a witty, fun variation of his monster hit “Duelin Banjos” (theme song from “Deliverance”) that brought the whole gang out with each adding their own stylings to the well know song. Richie Stearns added a Bo Diddley rhythm out of left field that fit. This closed out the first set, and with seven banjo players romping on “Duelin’ Banjos” for 10 minutes it drove the note count to just over the one million mark.
Tony Trischka opened the second half with help from Bela and the band playing crazy inventive original instrumentals with equally inventive names like “The Danny Thomas.” Tony – who has an imponderably large and varied body of work, including a brief stint as a Shakespearean actor with a single line in “As You Like It” in New York’s Central Park – has driven the five-string banjo out of the solar system and into the uncharted territory of near space… with an increasing outward velocity. Fly, man, fly! Acceleration necessary to exit the solar system takes a lot of notes, so Tony drove the running total up to 1.4 million.
Richie Stearns, driving force of the Horse Flies, plays in an old-time style but, surprisingly, was the only one to “plug in” and use varied electronic devices – and to very successful effect. He is also the only one of the entire group who is a legitimately talented singer (the others ranged from adequate to tolerable). Beating, frailing and wocka-wocking on an old-time banjo, he performed the haunting “Veins of Coal” with sublimely tasteful and light accompaniment from Bela and Tony. He followed with an Indian raga-flavored instrumental that was continually surprising, with traces of his own unique style popping in and out. He is able to squeeze more music out of a single string (it appeared to be the high D sting) on the banjo than seems physically possible. He closed with another instrumental that concluded with some Hendrix-style feedback that staked out yet another extreme edge of this most varied night. Feedback does not require a lot of notes so that kept his total down – note count grew by maybe 10,000.
Bela Fleck was the last individual performer. A former student of Tony Trischka’s, he has pushed the limits even farther to the unexplored territory of mid-deep space with rhythms, voices and stylings that were formerly as unknown as the Higgs Boson or Mitt Romney’s sense of humor. He played several indescribable improvisations sitting in a chair in front of the microphone line. His first wove unexpected snippets of “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Pop Goes the Weasel” into an otherwise cosmic riff on… whatever was on his mind. His renditions of two songs from his documentary film “Throw Down You Heart” (a must-see, by the way) used muted string effects to give the impression of a marimba-like instrument. It was simply amazing and brilliant. Another improv using harmonics and Keith Tuners to an exponential degree showed off yet another voice of this formerly limited instrument. His last improv, well, had a lot of notes -including some single-string right hand three-finger trills that surely created a fire hazard. He actually turned his banjo inside out at one point. He closed his portion with Peter and Richie playing three different fiddle tunes at once to achieve a somewhat muddled Bach-like contrapuntal effect. Note count climbed to 1.75 million.
The closing jam was a massive throwdown with everyone picking/frailing/wocka-wockaing on a medley of Earl Scruggs instrumentals including “Pike County Breakdown,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Sally Ann,” “Beverly Hillbillies” and several more. While not an especially good match for the more traditional stylings of Mac and Richie, they held their own while fighting for air time with the resonator enhanced weapons of the rest of the crew. Note count just cresting 2 million.
The first half of the encore brought out Bela and Tony for a show-bizzy yet amazing display of four-handed banjo playing on near-space jazzy picking. Then the whole team closed out with “Rueben’s Train” and pushed it just enough to hit the magic 2.5 million note count as promised. It took the better part of 3 ½ hours, but they delivered just like Eric promised!
These banjo players are all unique and totally accomplished, and this show exposes many of the facets of possibility of the five-string banjo. These players, and others to follow, will push this even farther while also preserving the true American history of this truly American instrument. Peter Lesser, who is the executive director of The Egg and the impresario behind this show, expresses his own astonishing creativity in imagining and realizing such an remarkable and improbable event.
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union