Banjos over Poughkeepsie

To the delight of a packed house, seven of the world’s greatest banjo players filled the Bardavon 1869 Opera House with musical styles ranging from bluegrass and old time to the most dreamy, newest age stringed musings. Seemingly every moment from Peter Wernick’s first notes encouraging newbies to play two chord songs to an encore where Bela Fleck and Tony Trishka teamed up with four hands playing one banjo, the night brought pure magic on the wings thirty five strings.

The show was the culmination of “NY Banjo: A Five-String Summit,” a 10-city, Hurricane Sandy-punctuated, east coast tour celebrating the Empire State’s contribution to banjo as a traditional and contemporary instrument. In reality, however, three concert dates (New York City, Princeton, NJ, and Alexandria, VA) were cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy—and according to concert organizers, make-up dates may be scheduled for January. So, those of you who missed this fabulous night of entertaining education—or perhaps enlightening entertainment—stay tuned.

The evening’s performance featured the banjo mastery of none other than Bela Fleck (Manhattan-born), Pete Wernick (Bronx born), Tony Trishka (Syracuse born and now lives in the New York suburb of Fair Lawn, NJ), Bill Keith (Woodstock resident), Eric Weissberg (Woodstock resident), Richie Stearns (Ithaca resident), and Mac Benford (Ithaca resident). These masters played solo and in various combinations and received outstanding support from their band: Russ Barenberg (guitar), Jesse Cobb (mandolin), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), and Corey Demario (bass). Since the show wrapped up the tour, all were tight and on their game. While the banjo talent drifted in and out of the line-up, the back-up band did the heavy lifting, which involved learning about thirty songs.

Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association partnered with The Bardavon to help promote the show. HVBA members who bought tickets through our website were also treated to experience the sound check and chat with the musicians before the show. Bela Fleck asked about our group, which gave us the opportunity to crow about the HVBA’s educational programs, slow jams, and high quality concert lineup, a track record that seemed to impressed them all.

Perhaps most gratifying to me was the audience response to Chris Silva’s mention of the HVBA at the start of the show. Clearly, our members cheered in a manner that upped our organization’s cred to the general public, Bardavon management, and movers and shakers in the bluegrass world like long time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) president Pete Wernick and Bela Fleck.

One of my favorite performances of the concert was hearing Bill Keith play “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,” which he also sang—a very rare event! The song is included on his 1984 Rounder album (now out-of-print), Banjoistics.” I bought this record as a college student just discovering bluegrass.

Likewise Eric Weissberg’s and Russ Barenberg’s delighted the crowd while cutting up over wild and bluesy improvisation of the otherwise trite “Dueling Banjos.” And the group played a well-arranged medley of Earl Scruggs tunes.

I also enjoyed hearing about special connections and relationships, such as Eric Weissberg and Bela Fleck both attending Manhattan’s School of Music and Art in the 1950s and 70s, respectively. We learned that Mac Benford and Richie Stearns are neighbors in Ithaca and that Country Cooking was co-founded as a double banjo bluegrass band by Tony Trishka and Pete Wernick. They rekindled old times with the forty year old “Tequila Mockingbird,” which sounded as fresh today as it did back in the day.

Not able to attend, but a man to which Tony Trishka paid homage as “the one who made all this possible,” was Beacon resident Pete Seeger. Many think of Seeger’s music as purely a strummed folk sound. But Trischka pointed out that Pete’s seminal instructional book inspited thousands and he also advised all prospective pickers to seek out the source: Earl Scruggs.

If you missed the show, don’t fret, make up dates are scheduled. And a robust website lives on.


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