November 2005: Banjos Banjos Everywhere and Many Drops to Drink
By Casey Henry
The little village of Longford, in the middle of Ireland, seems an unlikely place for a banjo festival. In point of fact, a banjo festival seems an unlikely event in itself. But Chris Keenan and Kathy Casey have developed this unique event to honor the life and music of Johnny Keenan, who passed away in 2000. Chris's husband Johnny was an extraordinary musician who played fiddle, guitar, bouzouki, and uilleann pipes, but he was best known for his innovative tenor banjo style, which utilized a thimble rather than the traditional plectrum. The Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival celebrates Irish traditional and American bluegrass music, with a healthy dose of old-time thrown in. This aspect-having 5-string bluegrass and old-time picking as well as tenor playing-is what makes this festival unlike any other.
I arrived in Dublin on a Thursday morning after sharing the trans-Atlantic plane with other Nashville pickers including Leroy Troy, Casey Driessen, Bryan Sutton, and Tim and Danny Carter. My Irish host for the weekend John Cassin picked me up for the hour and a half drive to Longford. Once there we had a "full Irish" breakfast: a fried egg, two slices of bacon (bigger and cut thicker than the American kind), two sausage links, blood pudding, white pudding, soda bread, and tea. One of the first people I saw at the restaurant was our own Spencer Nitchie. The banjo world is a small world.
The weekend had three distinct sections: the evening concerts in the ballroom of the Longford Arms hotel, the jam sessions in the lobby and in pubs throughout town, and the workshops during the day Saturday and Sunday. I didn't make it outside the hotel for the pub sessions, but I found plenty of picking in the hotel. I was fortunate to experience a variety of jams including bluegrass, Irish traditional ("trad"), and old-time. I met Acousticure, a good bluegrass band from Hungary with whom I jammed a bit one night. The guitar and fiddle player told me he'd never seen a woman play banjo like I did, leading me to believe that as uncommon as good female Scruggs-style players are in the US, they are much rarer overseas. In truth I didn't see another woman playing bluegrass or tenor banjo the whole time I was there. There were several female old-time players, though.
I learned that in a trad session there is not much you can do unless you actually know the tunes. I was lured into such a session by a good looking young tenor player named John from Co. Cork. He played loud and clean, easily heard over the din. I kind of chorded along, but even that was tricky, because the chords often didn't go where I expected them too, and when they change tunes (they always play tunes in sets) they usually change keys, too.
By far the best jam I found was Saturday night. In the lobby, in the middle of a crowd of people was a swinging old-time session anchored by fiddler Bruce Molsky, Paula Bradley on guitar, and banjo player Bill Dillof. I stood and watched for a few numbers, wishing there was enough room to dance, when Bruce motioned for me to join in. I'm generally leery of joining an old-time jam playing three-finger style, but I figured since I'd been invited it was okay. I rolled right along with the tunes, trying to pick out some melody here and there. These tunes were much easier for me to figure out than the Irish ones, primarily because they were as a whole more familiar, and they get played for five minutes or more, whereas the Irish tunes get played through maybe three times and then they switch to another tune. We were groovin', playing tune after tune, driven along by Paula's strong rhythm playing, when a drunk guy suddenly fell into our circle, narrowly missing my headstock and Paula's guitar. We decided that, fun though this jam was, it wasn't fun enough to endure that. We played one more and called it a night, about 2:30 a.m.
The concerts every night were extraordinary. Their lineup included American Ross Nickerson and German Andy Glandt, Leroy Troy, Jawbone (Tony Trischka, Bruce Molsky, Paula Bradley), the Irish artists Four Men and A Dog, Gerry O'Connor, Paddy Keenan and Tommy O'Sullivan, and Niall Toner. Saturday's headliner was the Bela Fleck Acoustic Trio, and Sunday's was Hayseed Dixie. The ballroom was filled with people each night. I was a bit surprised but impressed that so many people would come just to hear banjo playing. Indeed I wasn't the only one. Leroy Troy commented during his set, "I thought the crowds would dwindle about the third year," but they've continued to grow.
Many concert moments stand out. Jawbone is my new favorite band. It's neat to see Tony, who is most widely known for his innovative and progressive playing, explore older music in the three-finger style. Paula plays some of the best rhythm guitar I've heard in a long time, and I can't say enough about how amazing Bruce Molsky is. I have two favorite bits from their show. Occasionally they let Paula break out and clog for a tune while Bruce and Tony did the fiddle and banjo thing. Her syncopated chugs especially impressed me. She said she stole them from Ira Bernstein; I hope she doesn't mind if I steal them from her. Another highlight was Tony's solo medley in D: "John Henry," "Bonaparte's Retreat," and a yet-to-be-named original. The latter used the tuners in a very unusual way that really made the number stand out.
Tony invited Bela and Bill Keith onto the stage for a mouth-watering triple banjo version of "Salt Creek." It was so cool to see the three of them on stage together. Many years ago they recorded an album called "Fiddle Tunes For Banjo," which is available on CD. It was like seeing a little piece of that live.
Bela, Casey Driessen, and Bryan Sutton delivered an amazing performance. The trio format gives them a lot of room to improvise and play off each other in a semi-bluegrassy context. They did some old tunes and some new. One particularly interesting number Bela wrote after his recent trip to Africa. He said it explored the connection between bluegrass and African music: "Maybe there is one…I don't know. You decide."
In my opinion the truly mind-blowing performance of the weekend came from Hayseed Dixie. Don Wayne Reno (banjo) and Dale Reno (mandolin) are joined by front man/singer/guitar and fiddle player Barley Scotch and bass player Jason Smith in what can not be described as anything but a rock band. They had been touring Europe for a marathon forty-six gigs in a row and had come straight from a rock festival they hosted in Scotland. Despite what must have been a serious case of road-weariness they exploded off the stage (literally) with the first chord they hit, Don Wayne and Dale jumping down in front of the audience, and they didn't stop for more than an hour. Dale had a wireless pickup, so he could range freely throughout the crowd, which he did. They were loud, they were raucous, and they rocked the hotel, which was many times smaller than the thousand-seat venues they've been playing. They are rising stars in Europe, with appearances on television, playing at big rock festivals, and getting their pictures in popular music magazines. They played songs from AC/DC and other rock bands, as well as some notable originals. They even threw in some bonafide bluegrass instrumentals like "Banjo Signal" and "Charlotte Breakdown." On "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" Don Wayne did the right hand and Dale did the left. At one point in the song Dale turned around, toosh toward the audience, and Don Wayne spanked him. I loved the sheer brashness and un-bluegrassness of it all.
Let me not fail to mention how good Guinness is in Ireland, how great it was to meet Murphy Method students Dick McGarry and Eric Wearen who drove me to and from Longford every day, and how nice absolutely everyone associated with the JKBF is. Festival number five is in the planning stages. Chris Keenan and Kathy Casey don't know yet who next year's headliners will be, but I feel sure it will be worth a trip across the pond to see.