Wed 2nd October, 20198:00 pm - 10:30 pm (Doors: 7:30pm)
“Ron Block and Damien O’Kane have created something I have never heard. Damien’s sense of piston-like drive and Ron’s stately tone and string-bending accuracy mix to create a confluence of the perfect banjo. The other respected musicians dance around them and give them the space to chase, harmonize, or counter each other throughout this experiment. It works. It all works. Listen to it and see if you agree with me” – Jerry Douglas
The humble banjo has long been the brunt of innumerable jokes. So here goes: “What do you get if you cross an American bluegrass banjo and an Irish tenor banjo?”
In the case of Coleraine’s Damien O’Kane and California’s Ron Block you get fireworks – and a spectacular debut duo album that is probably nothing like you could imagine.
Banjo players can be almost apologetic about the instrument popularised in America with its origins in West Africa. Block himself has been known to jokingly describe the instrument as the ‘high school chick repellent’. But on either side of the Atlantic O’Kane and Block decided to stop laughing at banjo jokes – and learn how to play one – and how!
With two bold and acclaimed recent albums to his name – the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Album’ nominated Areas of High Traffic and last year’s Avenging and Bright, O’Kane thought it was high time to join forces with a musician he had long admired – Alison Krauss & Union Station’s banjo star and multiple award winner Block (no less than 14 Grammy Awards and six International Bluegrass Music Awards to his name for starters).
Widely regarded as two of the greatest exponents of the instrument they have collaborated to create arguably their own genre, something never heard before! Says Damien: “We coined the phrase ‘Banjophony’ meaning the wondrous sounds of the banjo and decided that described the album well. What that means lies within the virtuosity and beauty of the music”.
A union of transatlantic cultures, Banjophony melds two different styles and approaches to the banjo to captivating effect. Every note is precise and in exactly the right place, rising and falling with ‘question and answer’ picking and plucking, the light perfectly balanced by the shade – the musicians demonstrating high level connectivity and empathy.
The end result is a sparkling rollercoaster record which showcases an instrument that proves incredibly versatile in the right hands – both showy and subtle. The banjo brothers-in-arms are joined by a host of top guests including world renowned fiddle player Stuart Duncan who has performed with artists such as Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand, Robert Plant and Emmy-Lou Harris. Other stellar guests from the U.S. include mandolin stars Sierra Hull and Sam Bush while on double bass are Barry Bales and Ethan Jodziewicz. From this side of the pond, the star-studded list continues with the inestimable Michael McGoldrick on flute and whistles, Steven Byrnes and David Kosky on guitar throughout, Duncan Lyall on double bass and Moog and Anthony Davis on keyboards.
The bumper 15-track album is crisply produced by Josh Clark, O’Kane and Block. While O’Kane has composed the lion’s share of the original tunes, he and Block have created two shared tune sets with other tracks coming from the pens of Michael Rooney and old friend David Kosky.(Damien recorded a 2011 album The Mystery Inch with Kosky).
The album kicks off with Block’s bright and breezy Miller’s Gin which merges into O’Kane’s fast and furious Potato Anxiety – a song borne from hearing a fellow allotmenteer telling him she got anxious if there were no spuds in the house! The distinctive whistle of Michael McGoldrick weaves winsomely in and out of the tunes.
The banjo aces combine compositions on another fun tune set further into the album as they let their hair down in Lucky Rogues/Frantic Inspiration. All the guest musicians contribute to this number to joyous, frenetic effect.
Ron brings a taste of Tennessee to the album with his track Leiper’s Fork –it’s a homage to his hometown and the music, food and beer of the famous Puckett’s Grocery!
Elsewhere his Battersea Skillet Liquor is inspired by legendary men on both sides of the Atlantic – American old time fiddler Gid Tanner and English writer and ‘prince of paradox’ G.K. Chesterton.
Keeping it in the family five of O’Kane’s eight original tracks are written to celebrate his parents, daughter and wife Kate Rusby – and also, though clearly tinged with sadness, his late aunt Frances.
There is often a track for Damian’s mother Colette on his albums and this is no exception with the lovely Crafty Colette being a nod to her creative craft skills.Edging in like a steam train it ebbs and flows with a percussive, lush lyricism.
For the O’Kane patriarch, dad Joe, Damien has composed the upbeat and cheeky tune Giuseppe’s (Joe’s nickname!) which is part of the Trip to Portugal tune set, featuring some impressive double bass from Lyall – and written in very hot dressing room in a Portuguese bull ring!
The pace slows for Brown Eyes – dedicated to wife Kate it’s a gorgeous,free flowing tune. Their younger daughter (and Star Wars!) is the inspiration for Phoebe’s/The Banjo Strikes Back. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle soars above the banjos with David Kosky’s guitar, Sam Bush’s mandolin and Duncan Lyall’s bass fleshing out the happiness of this upbeat number.
Damien was asked by his uncle to write a piece of music for his Belfast-born aunt Frances who passed away at the end of last year. He composed and played Ode to Aunty Frances at her funeral – sensitive but sure, it is a graceful, measured and eloquent tribute that manages to bridge the sadness of loss and the celebration of a life.
County Kerry’s Pauline Scanlon who sang guest vocals on Damien’s latest solo album is the mischievous ‘spirit exorcist’ who inspired O’Kane’s airy The Midleton Thief which segues into the traditional Irish tune The Lobster which Kosky brought to the recording and which enjoys the full-blown bluegrass treatment.
Damien’s other self- penned tunes include the ‘skipped heartbeat’ No Harm Done and the slick and stately title track Banjophony. He says: “I wrote this tune very much with Ron in mind. I love how he interprets melodies and bends notes – makes it quite banjo rock ‘n’ roll!” It’s a tune that scales almost the full length of the banjo neck and Damien temporarily transfers to tenor guitar to let Ron and his intricate playing take centre stage.
The final three tracks of the album are from other pens – Michael Rooney’s ‘Brian Boru’s Reel’ (from a suite called Boroimhe about the great Irish high king, composed for the National Folk Orchestra of Ireland). This is followed by the stripped back and suspenseful Danish Horde – another tune from the same suite portraying the tension in Ireland when the Vikings arrived. It pairs with Kosky’s Spazzy McGee – a ‘dip and dive’ major/minor tune commemorating a goldfish!
The album closer is another Kosky tune – the gentle and emotive Waiting for Erin about awaiting his daughter’s arrival in the world.
Banjophony has already got the seal of approval from none other than revered US dobro player Jerry Douglas.
Life-affirming, uplifting, this is a carefully cultivated collection –not music for the sake of it. More to the point they have succeeded in making two banjos subtle, awe-inspiring and majestic-so no apologies or jokes here – just listen and believe!
Damien and Ron will launch Banjophony at the Rusby family’s Underneath the Stars Festival on July 20 before embarking on a UK tour ending at Cambridge Folk Festival.