The desire to go back to a time when life was simply about where you are and who you’re with is one we all have, to a degree. To come from a small town, to stand barefoot in freshly tilled soil on a Monday afternoon with nothing else to do, to know what a mountain morning is — that’s who we are when we listen to the banjo, even if we’ve never done those things before. And those are the people who play the banjo, those who remember where they came from, but also where they can go. Those who remember to appreciate both the people around them and those they have yet to meet. That’s what I learned at the New York Banjo Summit on Friday night, and when all else passes, that’s what I’ll remember, too.
The summit was a gathering of New York State’s preeminent banjo masters, from the well-known newgrass revivalist Béla Fleck of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, to old time Finger Lake local Mac Benford, to Eric Weissberg, is famous for his rendition of “Dueling Banjos.” There were seven in total, not including the four person supporting band who were all equally talented and renowned in their own regard. The confluence of greatness was not lost on the crowd, which was composed mostly of Ithacan adults and families who expressed the appropriate amount of reverence throughout the show, cheering each artist by name.
The show started with the full band playing on a dark stage, while the question, “Do you have room in your heart for the five string banjo?” boomed through the speakers. The seven players rotated around the stage, with two playing at a time and culminating in Béla Fleck’s introduction of the show. It was a high energy opening to what would prove to be a three and a half hour answer to the introductory question.
The first person to take the stage was Pete Wernick, who is nicknamed “Dr. Banjo” for his Ph.D. in sociology and banjo teaching. He is also an Ithacan, having worked at Cornell in the ’70s. His performance at the State Theatre included asking how many audience members played the banjo (about a third) and breaking down a ‘banjo roll’ to teach some finger picking techniques. He joked that it’s never too late to pick up the banjo, stating that, after all, even if you’re 65, when you’re 75 you can say you’ve been playing for 10 years.
Bill Keith, who is well known for his melodic style of playing, took the stage next. Let me note that before each player got off the stage, he introduced the next one in. There was a great spirit of camaraderie — each knew every other, learned from and taught one another, recorded with each other — making the unique New York banjo scene what it was together. For example, Bill employed the “Keith tuners” he invented — tuning the banjo to different notes while playing instead of changing notes on the fretboard. This made for an infinitely twangier sound and was incredible to watch in action.
Keith was followed by Mac Benford, who, being part of the banjo scene for more than 40 years, was the embodiment of traditional Appalachia. His numbers were followed by a banjo-less song composed by the guitarist of the band, Russ Barenberg. The song exemplified the prowess of a backup band that, in truth, rightfully stole the spotlight more than a few times. Eric Weissberg was the last to go on before intermission, playing “Dueling Banjos” back and forth with Russ, a comically charged interchange as each tried to outplay the other.
The last three banjoists brought the sounds of the banjo away from the conventional and toward, well, everything. They showed off the versatility of the traditional instrument, first with Tony Trischka coaxing out jazz-influenced sounds, followed by Richie Stearns, who performed an Indian song, “Last Train to Rajasthan,” with a fearsome clawhammer style. This piece was a personal favorite of mine, as it elevated the banjo to a whole new level of strumming, scrubbing and amplified feedback. It was a picture of contradictions — Richie, with his deep country voice dressed in a black cowboy shirt, singing Indian-style chants. It was exceptionally inimitable.
Richie introduced the headlining Béla, naming him “the current reigning king of banjo.” And it was apparent why. Taking a seat at the edge of the stage, Béla entranced the audience with the mournful echoes of his banjo playing. He encompassed all styles, playing an African inspired song followed by a Bach Suite and then a banjo concerto he wrote himself. Closing your eyes, you could easily mistake the gentle sound for that of a classical guitar.
The show ended with the audience cheering for an encore. However, instead of everyone coming back out, Béla came onto stage by himself, asking if he could play another solo. Halfway into it, Tony came out and fingered the notes on Béla’s banjo while Béla continued to fingerpick and then vice versa. As a final show of humorous bravado, Tony stood behind Béla and they played the banjo together, each taking a different set of strings until everyone else returned — seven banjos playing at once is a force to be reckoned with. It was a resounding ending to a night of talent, spirit and roots.
Original Author: Clio Chang