Sunday, November 11, 2007

Banjo night at Sanders Theater

Friday, November 9, 2007 was banjo night at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. About the banjo, Grammy award-winning banjo artist Alison Brown says there are two kinds of people. When you take out the banjo, some people run towards the stage and some run away. The folks in the first category got a real treat at Sanders with a double bill put on by World Music.

There is a danger, when you headline Sanders Theater, of getting upstaged by the opening act. That principle was on display with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who came on first. They performed old-time string band music infused with fife and drum and other African-American styles of the Deep South. This three person ensemble worked through a range of instruments: banjo, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, snare, bones, and jug. Lead singer Rhiannon Gibbons performed barefoot, a brave and trusting move for a cold November New England night. She asked from the stage that the house lights be brought up so they could see the audience. It was engaging and it was fun. It was a lot of fun. And if they could only get a few people up to dance, they got everyone to sing, and earned a standing ovation that brought them back for an encore.

Then Crooked Still took the stage and brought the lights back down. This four person group played the Cantab bluegrass night for several years, the Somerville Theatre, and Club Passim. They perform a lot of traditional folk songs with banjo, cello, and double bass. The lead singer Aoife O’Donovan (Aoife is pronounced just like it’s spelled) has a sweet voice, but had a little difficulty filling Sanders with it. And there was an air of melancholy. Crooked Still has played together since 2001, when they were all graduate students here in Boston, but now they have spread apart. Double-bassist Corey DiMario now lives in Vermont. Banjoist Dr. Gregory Liszt has been touring with Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band. Cellist Rushad Eggleston, whose attire and demeanor as always brought to mind a down-on-his-luck circus clown, is now living out on the West Coast and is leaving the group for other musical interests. So it was, I’m sure for many of their long-time fans, a special send-off in a great venue. And the technical level of their musicianship was excellent. Crooked Still does plan to add two new members this winter, and one hopes to see them around town, perhaps someday back at Sanders.

Coming up for the banjo crowd: Alison Brown plays the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River on Saturday, December 8. I may need to take a run down there, and am looking to recruit. It’s a great space in an old mill building in the waterfront district.

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