The banjo is a machine: a concatenation of metal and brackets, hoops and strings, of tailpieces and flanges, rims and tuning pegs. But it is more than that too. Take it out of the case and play it again: Angular and biting, dissonant and raw, graceful and moody, sonorous and lyrical, the banjo is a legacy of voices. -- Stephen Wade
And it is more than that too. The banjo is also the means by which Stephen Wade has made a living in Washington for the past 10 years, delighting a few hundred thousand people with his one-man, two-act shows "Banjo Dancing" and "On the Way Home." On Jan. 27, Wade's record-breaking run at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room will come to an end; he's off to Philadelphia, where he'll revive "Banjo Dancing."
His fans, however, will be glad to know that Wade has just released "Dancing Home" (Flying Fish), a series of American folk tunes that were performed either as instrumentals or as accompaniment to the stories in his shows. Had this album been available for sale at Arena over the years, it's a safe bet it would have outsold the pens that Wade shamelessly hawked (and the audience eagerly gobbled up) each night during "Banjo Dancing's" heyday.
Unlike his theatrical pieces, though, "Dancing Home" isn't a one-man show. Pianist and former Red Clay Rambler Mike Craver heads a small but choice ensemble of players that includes guitarist Zan McLeod, fiddler Sam Morgan, piper Kieran O'Hare and washboard player Gil Carter. Actually, each member of the supporting cast plays more than one instrument, and if you make a distinction between fretted and fretless banjos, then so does Wade. The expanded instrumentation, which also includes bouzouki, kalimba and Jamaican rumba box, allows Wade to flesh out the folk tunes in a discreetly colorful fashion, shading some melodies, highlighting others.
As a result, the focus is always on the tunes, not the musicians, and what a delightful collection of tunes it is. The album opens with a solo and rather somber piece called "Lost Gander." The melody fades in and out of the mix, a vaguely melancholy blend of distant tones and chiming harmonics, followed by the brisk and jaunty "John Greer's Two Step." This piece was passed down from Greer to Hobart Smith to Fleming Brown to Wade, and its old-school charm underscores its lineage.
From there, the album broadens its scope. A lovely Scottish medley graced by uillean pipes and tin whistle gives way to an intimate banjo and harmonium arrangement of Kirk McGee's anthemic mountain banjo melody "Snowdrop." Sam Morgan's astringent fiddle recalls the unvarnished power of an all-but-forgotten string band on "Davy, Davy," followed by similarly strong evocations of the Deep South, Afro-Caribbean traditions and tributes to the McGee Brothers, Frank Proffitt, Chesley Chancey, Uncle Dave Macon and his original accompanist, Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader.
In the liner notes, Wade quotes Harkreader's appraisal of the Grand Ole Opry's golden age: "It'll go down in history as long as the world stands," he says. After listening to "Dancing Home," it's apparent that Wade takes a similar pride in the music he's helped to preserve and expose. Certainly the affection and enthusiasm he and his band-mates hold for these tunes -- qualities that shine through every performance -- are not the least of the album's merits.
A record release concert by Wade and friends, incidentally, will take place tonight at the Barns of Wolf Trap.
Bluegrass Compilations Two compilations embracing the roots of and the latest developments in bluegrass are also now available. "American Banjo: Three Finger and Scruggs Style" (Smithsonian-Folkways) is a newly expanded reissue of a landmark album first released by Folkways in 1956. Recorded by Mike Seeger (who had a $100 budget to work with), the album focuses on players who influenced or were influenced by Earl Scruggs, with the vast majority of the 15 performers falling into the latter category. (Oddly enough, Scruggs, the chief innovator of the three-finger style, is absent from this anthology, though his older brother, Junie, a fair banjo picker himself, is represented by two cuts.)
Not surprisingly, the quality of the musicianship varies greatly, since Seeger found some players far more seasoned and active than others. But the album, featuring performances by pioneers Smiley Hobbs, J.C. Sutphin and Snuffy Jenkins, as well as (then) relative newcomers Seeger, Pete Kuykendall and Eric Weissberg, is consistently revealing and entertaining nonetheless.
By contrast, "Bluegrass Class of 1990" (Rounder) is an anthology made the new-fashioned way -- a collection of tracks drawn from various albums made for the same label. Not all of the cuts feature banjo, but several of the best draw on the talent, drive and, in some cases, innovations of Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Tony Murtado, the Nashville Bluegrass Band's Alan O'Bryant and past and present Johnson Mountain Boys Tom Adams and Richard Underwood.