Banging on...

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 10:23 14/03/2014

A couple of years ago I wrote about my least favourite instrument - the recorder. I had my reasons (and explained them) and asked for your reasons around whatever was your least favourite instrument. We had ourselves a good ole discussion - and of course saxophones, ukuleles, harmonicas and a few others featured, drum machines, bagpipes...Banging On

That discussion came back to me when I saw this picture (right).

I'm up, late at night, thinking of something to write, being bored toward near-slumber by the latest Elbow album - yes, yes, they used to make the albums Coldplay only thought it was making. Finally it seems that's not - at all - enough.

We've talked a lot over the years about favourites and least favourites - favourite/least favourite bands and singers and instruments, various lists centred around genres and records and individual songs. There's even been one or two posts about Lorde.

We've tried to talk about why we listen to music and the various ways we listen, locations, situations, the equipment we use.

But we have never talked about the banjo.

At least not specifically, well not as far as I can remember anyway. But what would I know, I only write this thing.

I couldn't tell you that I ever hated the banjo - but I know for a lot of people it sticks out, it sounds like an annoyance, there's something cloying about the clawing, there's something that bugs people about this snare drum that's been turned into what is very nearly a guitar.

I can tell you though that I had a banjo-listening epiphany, well, a eureka moment. As a kid my original Muppet Movie soundtrack (still a treasured possession) was my introduction to the banjo. I probably even believed that Kermit The Frog was actually playing it. Later I was impressed by comedians such as Steve Martin and Billy Connolly - both talented banjoists - they were able to play for laughs and play straight, showing their skills in both areas.

But I never had a favourite banjo player.

That was until I saw Art Garfunkel perform in Wellington over a decade ago. His band was amazing - and included celebrated banjoist Eric Weissberg. Weissberg was, for that evening, the guitarist. But he did use his solo spot to highlight his banjo skills, even playing a version of the famous "duelling banjos" from the movie Deliverance, that's him on the movie soundtrack. That was the eureka moment for me - I started clawing back through old music magazines and bios, seeking out names online and in the music store where I worked at the time, thumbing through the discs in the shelves, eager to find new names. Dock Boggs and Earl Scruggs, Ricky Shaggs and Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and Abigail Washburn, the names started to pile up. Some of them arrived by accident - reviewing Ralph Stanley albums, say. But I also followed leads, checked out Bela Fleck because he was one of the obvious names to check in with, listened to Pete Seeger (R.I.P.) and Wade Ward. I listened out for it in the music I was digging at the time - be it Sufjan Stevens or Bright Eyes, Jolie Holland or Neko Case, a wave of the "alt-country" music seemed to be sneaking the banjo back into music.

Funny how the banjo can elicit responses from both ends of the scale; a couple of weeks ago I even played the Duelling Banjos bit from Deliverance as part of a DJ set up at Motel Bar. I had been playing a few country songs, so it was squeezed into that part of the evening. One guy came up as it was playing and wanted to talk, rather a bit too intensely given my commitments that evening, all about the banjo. I think I saw some froth forming around his lips.

That conversation was moved on and in the next breath a person called out from the corner of the room, "what are you playing that f**king banged up banjo s**t for?"

As I said when talking about least favourite instruments surely it's more about the player and how they're playing - it shouldn't matter the instrument if someone is making it talk, making it say something. As we learn when young, a piece of paper and a comb can be an instrument. In the right hands anyway.

Neko Case's gig this week and seeing Paul Brady - hearing him talk about Andy Irvine - got me to thinking about the banjo. It's not quite everywhere, but close to it, across a lot of the music I'm listening to currently. I was even envious, recently, watching a great banjo player. I've never even thought to play the instrument much less had a turn at it. But in that moment then and there it was the coolest instrument I'd heard  - and seen. And I wanted, briefly, to dedicate my life to a late charge at a bit of five-string.

Well, that crazy notion passed. Obviously. It's far more sensible for me to continue dedicating my life to listening to albums I'll likely hate, staying up far too late just to write something like this.

Oh, and speaking of staying up late, I'm back at the Motel Bar tonight. Playing records from 10pm-3am. Come on down and say hi if you're in Wellington.

Postscript: Tomorrow night Yo La Tengo plays Wellington's Opera House as part of the New Zealand Festival. If, like me, you're really looking forward to the gig you might like to read my recent interview with the band's bass player, James McNew.

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