Banjophobics look away now lest your delicate sensibilities be offended. Me, I like the sound of the banjo as much as the next man but I’m used to hearing it in certain contexts: bluegrass, complex Irish tunes, Appalachian songs and the diffuse genre of country/blues/folk/rock. With Banjophonics Damien O’Kane and Ron Block treat the banjo as any other musical instrument and apply it to all manner of tunes. The majority of the eighteen compositions here are written by Damien and Ron with a few borrowings. As well as banjos they play guitars – tenor and regular – and are supported by Steven Byrnes, Duncan Lyall and Josh Clark on some sessions and Sierra Hull, Barry Bales and Jay Bellerose on others. Plus guest appearances from Michael McGoldrick and Kate Rusby.
I was a little daunted at first – this much banjo in one place can be a bit overwhelming – but Damien and Ron’s approach negates this. So, for example, Ron’s soft and lyrical ‘Bide The Night’ can only be called a banjo tune because there are banjos on it. It’s a lovely, almost minimalist piece and, for me, one of the nicest on the album.
The first two sets are written Damien and relate, in part, to his Irish roots and the next two are for his family beginning with Ron’s ‘Daisy’s Dance’ and followed by Damien’s ‘Happy Little Phoebe/Manny Mountain’. Following the aforementioned ‘Bide The Night’ comes another of Ron’s tunes, the rather more boisterous ‘The Fiddler’s Gun’ dedicated to the pirate Fin Button who, it seems, is the subject of a series of novels. The sound of cannons is real, or so we’re told. Ron’s ‘Endless Wanderer’ is an autobiographical song about an itinerant musician and the first of two songs in the set.
‘Happy Sevens/Monster Rabbit’ are two more tunes from Damien’s past (probably best not to ask) and Ron’ ‘Whirlwind’ is, as he tells it, is one of those tunes that just grewed while ‘EDB & Lady Grey’ are for his children – it’s only fair. The second song is Barry Kerr’s ‘Woman Of No Place’, a tribute to Margaret Barry who graduated from Cork to Carnegie Hall. ‘Soundcheck Sonics/Andy Brown’s’ pairs another of Damien’s tunes, one which started as some idle noodling, with a piece by Aly Bain. Finally we have ‘The Thrifty Wife’, composed by Ron for his wife, Sandra.
After a couple of plays I was really into Banjophonics and seriously impressed with not only the playing of Damien and Ron – that goes without saying – but also their musical imaginations. Who knew a banjo or two could do so much?
‘Happy Chappy/Marinie’s Melody’ – virtually live: