I know the groans that the mention of the word banjo elicits in both folk circles and the wider music world have long been a bit of a cliché. But as a Brit, I must confess that my first thought at mention of the word is usually visions of Jim Royle whipping out his banjo and rattling off some tired old music hall song in episodes of the Royle Family.
It’s not like that elsewhere, of course, and four years ago, Irish musician Damien O’Kane and California-based Ron Block pulled off the seemingly impossible, with their debut album Banjophony attracting rave reviews and suddenly making the banjo cool – even in Britain.
Now the pair have done it again with a brand-new, thirteen-track album, Banjophonics, and I must say I love it!
Damien O’Kane: “The title reflects the sound we think we make – it’s a definition of our music. It’s a joyous, life-affirming joust, barely pausing for breath – fast, frenetic fireworks punctuated by more reflective melodies.”
What the collaboration does so successfully, of course, is fuse two distinct banjo traditions into one joyful, transatlantic, musical melting pot: courtesy of the four-string Irish tenor banjo and the five-string American bluegrass banjo.
A celebrated performer on the Irish music scene, O’Kane has two successful solo albums behind him and is a much in-demand musician while Block is rightly celebrated for his role as part of Alison Krauss & Union Station.
Comprising eleven tunes and two songs, Banjophonics is an exhilarating mix that spans a whole range of tempos, influences and moods. There’s a great line-up of guests on the album, too, including Siera Hull, Barry Bales, Jay Bellerose from the US, along with Steven Byrnes, Duncan Lyall, Josh Clark, Michael McGoldrick and David Kosky from this side of the Atlantic. Kate Rusby provides stunning backing vocals on one track, ‘Woman Of No Place’, a tribute to Irish traveller and banjo player, Margaret Barry.
Whether you come at it as a lover of the Irish folk tradition or the American bluegrass tradition or a bit of both, you will find plenty to love in this album.
Released: 1st July 2022