It seems at last the banjo's long winter (or perpetual summer, perhaps) may be over. With such practitioners about as Eugene Chadbourne, Joe Morris and Brandon Seabrook (to name a few), the plucky little box might finally be getting past a reputation born of Steve Martin and Deliverance
. Martin (who recently put out his own banjo record) once said that you can't be sad and play the banjo. He may well have known of mournful traditions from Texas to the Appalachians, but he didn't do the instrument any favors.
Quebecois guitarist Antoine Berthiaume is the latest to add the banjo as a second axe, and uses it to great effect with his septet Rodeoscopique. The instrument doesn't dominate the albumhe spends more time here with electric and Dobro guitarsbut his understated finger-picking does open the disc and sets the high lonesome mood for the free-range Americana he wrote for the band. Berthiaume has previously recorded with Derek Bailey, Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp, pretty solidly establishing his improv pedigree, but as a composer he shows a very different side, closer to the smooth complexities of Bill Frisell's recent work than the knotty improvisations he's released on Montreal's Ambiances Magnetiques. The bandcomprised of reeds, violin, pedal steel guitar, bass and drums, and the cello of Melanie Auclair (who has her own solid Ambiances Magnetiques record) is wonderfully elastic, moody and evocative.
Tuey Connell's five-string plays a more prominent role in the debut release by vibraphonist Dan McCarthy's quartet Tucksy. McCarthy's tunes are, for the most part, unabashedly chipper and steeped in jazz. Despite the unusual line-up, it's easy to hear the sweet tunes as if played by sax and guitar with rhythm section which, given the limited sustain of the banjo, says something about the precision in Connell's playing. The band has a light, cinematic quality which is quite nice at times, even if they undermine their strengths in their use of cover versions (The Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" and the theme from the TV show Law & Order), and cover art (a "wild and crazy guys" band portrait). They may be a bit romantic comedy to Rodeoscopique's western drifter, but when they're on they still nail it pretty well.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Autan noir; Alamo; Tumbleweed; Autan blanc; Eperons d'argent; Loo; Ljuke; Les chamins de la route; Wishing Well; Chocolatero
Personnel: Antoine Berthiaume: guitar, banjo; Phillipe Lauzier: bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Buido del Pabbro: violin; Stefan Schneider: percussion; Pierre-Yves Martel: bass; Rick Haworth: pedal steel guitar Let's Start the Show
Tracks: Tucksy's Theme; Loblues; Nothing is Lost; Tu's Blues; Oban at Four; Paint it Black; Petra's Song; Simply Put; The Mysterious Disappearance of Sir Randolph Buckminster; Untitled Film; Theme from Law & Order; Lack of Colour; Land of the Silver Birch
Personnel: Dan McCarthy: vibraphone; Tuey Connell: banjo; Dan Loomis: bass; Fred Kennedy: drums