His third album in two years, Cosmic Banjo, as the title suggests, sees the Kentucky-based singer-songwriter focusing on his long neck banjo playing skills, adapting Pete Seeger’s technique of using a normal thumbpick, plus an upside down metal pick on the first finger, with a mix of self-penned, traditional and evergreen material, kicking off with ‘Ballad Of Bojangles’, a waltztime retelling of the Mr Bojangles story, American tap dancer and actor Bill Robinson, whose fame in the first half of the 20th century was immortalised by Jerry Jeff Walker, here featuring John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on mandolin.
Staying back in the early 1900’s, next up comes the lazy blues rhythms of ‘In The Evening’, a song originally written and recorded by Nashville-born blues crooner and pianist Leroy Carr as ‘When The Sun Goes Down’. Keeping it nocturnal, it’s back, then, to an original for the plucked notes of ‘Moonfire’, a dreamy mid-tempo instrumental coloured by fiddle.
Employing a full string quartet as backing, the first of three live recordings comes with a reverential rootsy take on the old Baptist hymnal ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’, the others being album closer, a bluesy, spare banjo arrangement of Summertime from Porgy & Bess and, on a playful note, ‘Banj-Jokes’ which, as the title says, is a litany of groan-inducing jokes about the instrument and those that play them (for example, “what do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a banjo player? A tattoo”) interspersed with some sprightly picking that rebuts the ridicule it sometimes receives.
On the traditional side of things, he offers up a lively jaunt through ‘Darlin’ Corey’ and a more easy rolling reading of doomed love story ‘East Virginia Blues’, a number popularised by The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers, while the remaining standard is a brief solo banjo-accompanied take on Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, his voice reminiscent of Don McLean,
The two remaining numbers, both instrumentals, set out to show that the banjo isn’t just about hillbilly front porch music, ‘The Baghdad Breakdown’ adding sitar to the mix to give bluegrass a middle eastern makeover (the opening notes oddly sounding like ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’) as it gathers to a dervish flurry, the other being the psychedelic-coloured, brass-tinted time signature shifting title track which he not inaccurately describes as Pete Seeger meets Pink Floyd, ‘The Dark Side Of The Loon’ perhaps.
It’s been almost 50 years since Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell brought banjo music to the forefront of popular awareness with their bestselling hit version of ‘Duelling Banjos’ in the film Deliverance – Cosmic Banjo is is a useful reminder that it is an integral part of Americana music and deserving of far greater respect than it is often accorded.
Artist’s website: www.michaeljohnathon.com
‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ – a live recording from 2010: