Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Live: Tony Trischka's Territory, 3/11/11 at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC

Tony Trischka is a living legend. He has an incredibly long list of accomplishments and is a true innovator of the banjo. He is currently working on a new musical project inspired by aspects of the Civil War and he produced Steve Martin's new bluegrass album, Rare Bird Alert. In addition, he is also the musical consultant for The Banjo Project, an upcoming PBS special. 

Mr. Trischka's 2007 album, Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, which featured an impressive roster of who's-who in bluegrass and string music, was nominated for a Grammy. His Territory album, which was released by Smithsonian Folkways,  is a rich 21-track set composed of 12 solo performances and 9 tunes that pair Mr. Trischka with fellow banjoists Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Bill Evans, Bill Keith, Bruce Molsky, and other guests to mine and celebrate one of America's signature and unique musical instruments.

Territory was an apt title for the album because it is a collection that covers so much ground, illuminating many strengths, as well as the surprising range of the banjo. Mr. Trischka explores a wide variety of tunings, experiments with banjo-sounds, and celebrates traditions that keep this instrument so vital to the American musical vernacular.

Last Friday night, Mr.Trischka brought his band, Tony Trischka Territory, to the Rockwood Music Hall for an intimate performance that was enjoyed and savored by everyone in attendance. The band featured Tony Trischka (banjo), Michael Daves (guitar, vocals), Skip Ward (bass), and Tashina Clarridge (fiddle).

The show opened with a sparse and bouncy instrumental number, and then the band led right into "Run Mountain", off of the Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular album.  Michael Daves, who began singing in his infectious and distinctive high falsetto, claimed his place as lead vocalist and guitarist for the evening on this tune.

Next was the classic "Rain and Snow", with Mr. Daves' vocals again piercing through the room up through the rafters. I especially enjoyed the slower pace of this tune. As opposed to some of the more upbeat and racier renditions of this song that I have heard, the band gently slowed it down a bit, giving the lament an even deeper sense of longing and desperation.

Mr. Trischka introduced the next number as "one of the fiddle National Anthems", and with a nod, Tashina Clarridge led off the fiddle tune favorite "Sally Goodin" (or Gooden to others- ha!). Skip Ward's driving bass playing propelled the tune relentlessly as Clarridge, Trischka, and Daves all took their turns at the tune during their breaks. I found it impossible to keep my feet still or to wipe the smile off of my face during this one. It is always such a rewarding and refreshing treat to watch and listen to such master musicians roar through a time-honored standard, one that you may have heard countless times. And this band just outright owned it as they burnt it up. When they finished up the song, Mr. Trischka added with a laugh that it's a song that is "so great to overplay".

Next up was "Escher's Waltz", another tune from Double Bass Bluegrass Spectacular, and one which Trischka described simply as one that "goes off in a strange direction". It was followed by the group's take on the bluegrass classic, "Molly & Tenbrooks".

Watching Mr. Trischka lead his mates through a medley consisting of three instrumental songs, each focused on one of the three lower strings, was a blast to dig into. Sitting back and watching the banjo-master walk his fingers effortlessly up and down the instrument's neck, as the guitar, bass, and fiddle all accompanied, was such a nuanced reminder of some of the celtic roots at heart of some of the best traditional tunes that have survived over the years.

Another medley followed, but this time, it was three new compositions that are influenced by Mr. Trischka's current musical project inspired by aspects of the Civil War. This for me was one of the true highlights of the evening. First, was an instrumental that Mr. Trischka dubbed "Blue Yodel Number Gowanus" (referencing the notoriously polluted and neglected Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn), but was inspired by a riverboat gambler on the Mississippi. Next came a tale of a train robbery called "The General", which began slow, sprinted for the majority of the tune, before slowing back down and rolled off into the distance. Just like all good locomotives should. 

The finale of this medley was a mournful tune that put music to the metaphorical Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln's death,  "O Captain! My Captain!". It was a stirringly evocative vocal performance by Daves, matched hauntingly with the deeply reflective and sorrowful tone set by Trischka's banjo work and Clarridge's fiddle performance. It was a true collaboration of two distinct art forms melding together. Definitely my favorite moment of the evening, without question.

The set concluded with Mr. Daves taking the lead on Doc Watson's "Black Mountain Rag", faithfully and respectively paying homage to Watson's distinctive flatpick guitar style, while providing the space necessary for his bandmates to shine as well. "Foxchasin'" and "Darlin' Cory" closed out the night. It wasn't a medley per se, but the last three tunes summed up the performance perfectly by allowing each member of the band to shine as a true collective.

The sign of a true bandleader is one that plays as part of the whole group, almost seeming to not be directing at all. Last Friday night, during several moments of the group's performance, I had to keep reminding myself that it was Mr. Trischka who was the "leader" of the band. What I was so taken with was how he did not seek out the spotlight in any way, but instead- he chose to stand off to the side, outside of the spotlight completely. Trischka let his bandmates share center stage as he modestly stood to their side. 
The group, defined the word "partnership", as they all worked together and delivered an evening of incredible music, that was brilliantly performed, to a room full of spectators that hung on every note. Mr. Trischka is a true master and innovator, and along with the members of Territory, it's an act worth seeking out if you can catch them live.

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