Friendly dueling: annual event shows best in banjo

Oh, you know the old joke: “How can you tell if there’s a banjo player at your door”? “They can’t find the key, the knocking speeds up, and they don’t know when to come in.”

There’s a million jokes like that — as Chris Quinn admitted from the stage “it’s a tambourine on a stick” — and  today’s banjo players know how to take them.

Yet the fact remains, they’re a powerfully emotive instrument with a complicated history and the chance to catch four  of Canada’s best pickers on the same stage was something that had to be experienced: the annual Banjo Special: A Showcase of Traditional Banjo Style, held at Hugh’s Room earlier this month.

As it turned out, this was the annual event’s 12th year and others, equally thrilled with the concept, packed the house in anticipation. So much for the banjo being the butt of musical jokes.

Chris Coole. Brian Taheny. Arnie Naiman. Chris Quinn. Each with different approaches to their instrument, each representing their own specialty and each connected in various ways.

Chris Coole and Chris Quinn are renowned for their roles within the Foggy Hogtown Boys – relentless progenitors of bluegrass hybrids. Chris Coole, the old-tyme, clawhammer aficionado and Chris Quinn hailing from the Earl Scruggs school of three finger playing.

Brian Taheny, originally of Co. Sligo, plays Irish tenor banjo for an entirely different effect – a lynchpin of Celtic sounds.

Arnie Naiman is another old-tyme player employing a clawhammer technique in  down-picking style. He plays with his band Ragged But Right (consisting of wife, Kathy Reid-Naiman and daughter Hannah) and plays regularly with Chris Coole.

This abundant talent pool started off the night playing together and, in round-robin style, individually. Together, they demonstrated different techniques, playing styles and variations in the instruments themselves, proving both interesting and informative. Brian’s son, Leon, provided percussive support through his skilled use of the Irish bodhran.

Chris Coole played on a late ‘70’s Vega Tubaphone banjo and a gourd banjo (made by Teilhard Frost); Chris Quinn played a ‘34 Gibson KK-10, a ‘72 Gibson RB-250 and a 2008 Recording King (Deco King model); Brian played a Gibson Mastertone and a ‘24 Vega Delux Tenor Banjo; Arnie played a ‘70s Vega Tubaphone, a new Jason Romero custom-built banjo from Horsefly, B.C. (12 inch pot with goatskin head) and a Teilhard Frost gourd banjo.

It’s important to register this because each player took the time to explain why they preferred their different instruments, how they complemented individual playing styles and, in some cases, their histories. As the house seemed to be filled with quite a few players, the education proved an unexpected bonus.

Each player featured songs from their repertoire – like “Langstrom’s Pony” and “The Convenience” (Taheny), “Johnny Court The Widder/Camp Chase” and a hypnotic version of “Reminiscence” (Naiman), Allen Shelton’s “Bending the Stings” and “Farewell Blues” (Quinn) together with Coole’s rousing version of the Band’s “Stage Fright” and an exceptional original in “Winfield’s Fancy”.

Of equal joy was watching each player clearly enjoying the work of their fellows — competitiveness seems to be the territory of others in this family-oriented collective.

As if this wasn’t enough, the stage was suddenly as full of banjo players as the ocean depths are reputedly filled with lawyers – a 16-piece Banjo Orchestra, to be exact. Comprised mostly of students (each player being an instructor on the side), a thunderous version of a Sergio Leone-like “Once Upon A Time In The North” (Chris Coole) was truly something special to behold — right down to the cued crack of a (live) whip, providing added value for the S/M set.

The second set lent itself to a less structured format in which each individual brought up guests from their regular bands and/or talented friends, allowing them to stretch out a little further in their preferred modes. Brian’s North Atlantic Drift added Cape Bretoner Dan MacDonald (fiddle) on fiddle and Ross Griffiths on Scottish border pipes and (potentially) Irish Uilleann pipes while Brian added banjo.

Chris Quinn brought up Kristine Schmitt (vocals) and Tony Allen (fiddle/vocals) while both he and Chris Coole added dobro master, Ivan Rosenberg to their separate sets (Ivan guests on the latest Foggy Hogtown release). Chris Coole also performed with Kristine Schmitt while Arnie added his wife (Appalachian dulcimer, banjo ukulele) and daughter (fiddle) to showcase numbers from the Ragged But Right repertoire.

From “Oh Groundhog” to “Southern Jack” to “Cruel Willie” and back, this was a special night of music, indeed. If you weren’t a fan of the banjo before you arrived, you’d certainly leave as one. As expected, an encore was a requested and delivered.

The fact that this ever-cheerful, rhythmic instrument goes both forward or back in time, as determined by its player, means it will never fall out of vogue, never mind the jokes. An intensive evening of buoyant, banjo-focused playing like this — from four virtuosic players — has the power to not only cure what ails you, but can stand you in good stead for the time that lies ahead. Real roots music would be lost without its upbeat, if not soulful, contribution.

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  1. Dave Haskins 20 February, 2012 at 14:09

    Banjo joke # 437, told to me by a banjo player:
    How to tell a banjo player from a harmonica player? The harmonica player sucks only half the time.

  2. Arnie Naiman 21 February, 2012 at 16:58

    Thank you Eric Thom. The annual Banjo Special is indeed a great evening for each of us. We cover just a few banjo styles- there are many other ways to play the 5 string banjo. I would highly recommend Mike Seeger’s “Southern Banjo Sounds” cd as an excellent resource ( get the liner notes and the music ) for more examples. If anyone is interested in what we do check out http://www.merriweather.ca/albums.aspx?ID=11 Oh & I do give lessons if you are interested.
    Boing Twang, Arnie Naiman

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