Dan Smalls Presents and the State Theater of Ithaca hosted a magical experience with the NY Banjo Summit on Friday November 2, 2012. All in attendance in the nearly packed house were treated to a mixture of history, storytelling, music and showmanship from an all-star line up of musicians spanning many styles of banjo music. I left the theater feeling utterly grateful to have been in the audience.
One would be hard pressed to find a venue as suitable as The State Theater for this kind of show. The theater itself dates back to around the 1930s, the time period the banjo asserted itself as an American instrument in popular culture. It’s quaint and relatively small with a historical feel and an overhanging balcony assuring that even the cheap seats get a good mix of the stage sound. Every note rang clearly and precisely in the room. Even the breathy, husky lilt of the voices of the pioneers on the stage reached out and touched our ears.
I was anticipating some great music and had done my research before arriving, but I still found myself surprised by how much I learned about the banjo and banjo music in general. Somewhere between a songwriter’s circle complete with a story or 10, a showcase and a presentation, this show truly left the audience with a well rounded view of how varied the music birthed out of a banjo can be.
Some highlights for me included a poignant expression of a proletariat anthem “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” raising the hair on my arms with its lyrics still so relatable. This is part of how this instrument crept deeply into the hearts of the American people; it backed so many songs of struggle of the working man and the enduring qualities that make us human. I was also taken completely aback by Richie Sterns! As much as Bela himself has tailored the banjo to suit his particular expression, so has Richie Sterns with this aggressive and progressive rockabilly lean. Utilizing several effects, Sterns’ play was edgy and crisp; his demeanor truly grateful and amiable Of course, Bela Fleck’s unique style of heavily working harmonics and his tuning pegs relentlessly left us breathless as he took his solo spotlight moments. There is something sacred in the air when Bela plays with such intensity and the audience shared in some beautiful moments of near meditation. Tony Trischka is a true showman and it was downright fun to watch him interact with Bela and the rest of the band and to hear his quips and stories. He is also a master at the instrument blending more contemporary play with jazz and the essence of old foot tapping barn-thumpers. Under his hands, many styles of banjo play converge. Trischka and Bela created an impressive display of a four armed banjo beast, both playing the same instrument at the same time with astonishing precision and speed. Weissberg delightfully taunted with “Dueling Banjos” and ultimately delivered an interesting slightly deconstructed version of the fan favorite.
The backing band was also superb with fiddle player Alex Hargreaves receiving a fair share of attention. I would have liked to have heard the upright bass up in the mix a little more prominently, but that is likely personal taste over a genuine criticism.
All in all, the New York Banjo Summit was a beautiful, touching and evocative experience in lovely Ithaca that I will honestly carry with me my entire life. If you have a chance to catch this tour somewhere, even if it is only from clips online, I urge you to do it!