Stephen Wade, Back to Teach

Monday, October 16, 2006

The hair is silver now, and far thinner than when we first met Stephen Wade in 1981 when he opened his long-running one-man show "Banjo Dancing" at Arena Stage, but the joy and boundless enthusiasm for the material is the same. Maybe more so, since Wade was on a local stage for the first time in 15 years to pay overdue tribute to Appalachian musician Hobart Smith.

"In Sacred Trust: Remembering the Music of Hobart Smith" brought out Wade's professorial instincts Saturday night, the second of two performances, at a sold-out Birchmere as he examined the Saltville, Va., native's legacy with an appropriately low-tech multimedia presentation, generously proportioned at three hours.

Accompanied by veterans Mike Craver on grand piano and pump organ, fiddler James Leva and acoustic guitarist Zan McLeod, Wade demonstrated Smith's instrumental virtuosity with his own, playing "Soldier's Joy," "Pateroller" and "Wabash Blues" the way Smith handed them down to Chicago music teacher Fleming Brown, also a major figure in Wade's narrative. Sometimes the songs were played twice or three times to show the development of the playing styles or their influence on other genres.

Wade completed the portrait with artifacts (an original album cover, Smith's own banjo), a Smith sound bite on a boombox and a slide show of vintage photos.

"In Sacred Trust" was exhaustive and exhilarating, and it's a woeful shame no future performances are anticipated. That aside, the show raises the question: Who is going to have the skill and knowledge to play Stephen Wade when it comes time to pay tribute to him?

-- Buzz McClain

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