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Damien O’Kane and Ron Block – Banjophonics

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Damien O’Kane and Ron Block - Banjophonics

Damien O’Kane and Ron Block

Banjophonics

Pure Records

2022

As the title of the second album from these two banjo heavyweights suggests, Banjophonics is very much a continuation of Damien O’Kane and Ron Block‘s debut Banjophony, which dropped in 2018 after the pair began playing tunes together while Ron was touring with Sierra Hull. Banjophonics has had a reasonably tricky journey so far, with the pandemic putting pay to the original idea of recording the whole thing in three sessions at the Pure Records studio while Ron was in the UK. Instead, five of the songs had to be laid down remotely, with Damien here and Ron back in the US. Not that any of these disruptions come across on record; like Banjophony, this one is a cracking set and a great example of duetting five-string and tenor (or plectrum) banjos. Also, like their previous release, Banjophonics predominantly focuses on the two different types of banjo and ensures you can hear their intricate differences (Damien’s tenor is a four-string instrument with a short scale, flat-picked with a plectrum, while Ron’s longer scale banjo is played with finger-picks and has a fifth drone string). Still, the duo have enlisted a bumper selection of musicians to embellish their music. The result is a significant and generous thirteen track album of vibrant and exciting music, played with plenty of skill and energy.

Bide the Night is one tune that immediately jumped out at me; one of seven pieces Ron penned for the album, this is a beautiful song that very subtly balances the metallic timbre of the banjo with woodier instruments, including Damien’s four-string tenor guitar, giving the music a certain softness that wonderfully offsets the more energetic songs. Steven Byrnes’ acoustic guitar is also a star here and perfectly demonstrates the delicate balance of the music. Similar in tone is Damien’s Taxi Driver, a song written for his father and one with an enviably delicate melody that both banjos play with a sense of restraint. The guitar stays back on this one, alongside Duncan Lyall’s rich double bass, and allows the banjos to have fun, especially when the song seamlessly moves into the second part, Close Enough, a jaunty jazz-inspired section that must be a lot of fun to play live.

Duncan Lyall’s bass notes deserve mention again for being ace on Damien’s next tune, Happy Chappy. This lovely and super-addictive melody is made into something even more special by Duncan’s mischievous and elastic low playing, this time coming from a Moog synthesiser. Details like this really lift the music above the sum of its parts. The tune itself is a cracker, as is Marinie’s Melody, its second part, but the keyed bass line makes it stand out and turns it into something exciting and unexpected. Another fine example is Ron’s The Fiddler’s Gun, which features a stellar lineup. Again, the banjo is upfront, and the tune is killer, this time driving and adventurous. At the same time, Barry Bales’ double bass and Jay Bellerose’s dynamic percussion, which shifts from rattlesnake to gunfire throughout, lends the music an exciting, cinematic edge. Another ace is Sierra Hull, who chases Ron and Damien with some excellent mandolin playing. It’s all so well-considered and so determined to be enjoyed by anybody who hears it, at which it cannot fail.

Elsewhere, Damien’s Happy Sevens / Monster Rabbit takes an Irish jig and plays it in a more unusual 7/8 time signature, giving the music an unfamiliar sound, which switches neatly into its second part, a high tempo piece written about a childhood memory of his mother pretending to be a fearsome giant rabbit. These playful tunes precede a wonderful pair of Ron’s: Whirlwind is a warped fiddle tune that finally took shape in the studio and nicely demonstrates the dynamism at work between Ron and Damien, plus Steven Byres on guitar again, Josh Clark’s percussion and that fantastic Moog. EDB & Lady Grey is a bittersweet piece written about the emotions felt by a travelling musician leaving their family at home to tour. Again, the band’s tightness is clearly heard here, balancing the two banjos perfectly and providing enough colour to lift a quietly moving melody. This trio of songs is another example of the compositional skill of each musician, plus the range of sounds that each of their styles helps bring to the album.

To diversify things a bit more, halfway through the album, the pair start singing! Endless Wanderer begins with a driving guitar rhythm from Ron before his vocals kick in, along with Sierra Hull’s mandolin, Damien’s backing vocals and the two banjos, which share the stage equally here with the voices, mandolin and guitars.

Further on, it’s Damien’s turn to be lead vocalist on a version of Barry Kerr’s Woman of no Place, a tribute to travelling Irish singer and banjo player Margaret Barry. Like Ron’s Endless Wanderer, this one gives the banjos room but is more of a band piece, with Damien’s (along with wife Kate Rusby providing backing) singing being the focal point for the most part. These two vocal-led songs offer a contrast to the other tune-heavy numbers and again demonstrate the versatility of Banjophonics, which is generous enough to want to provide the listener with everything they could want.

The end product is a bounteous album that consistently surprises and delights the listener with exciting music and creative details that enhance the melody at each song’s core. Of course, the two banjos are the main focus throughout, but the addition of a high-end band, some singing and cracking guest appearances really adds to the sound and makes Banjophonics something special. A hugely satisfying experience, this music has energy, emotion and a huge heart and is a rich and rewarding piece of work that is very difficult not to love.

Banjophonics is released on July 1st via Pure Records and is supported by a UK Tour (see dates below).

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Damien O’Kane and Ron Block

Damien O’Kane and Ron Block UK Tour

Thursday, June 30 – GRANTHAM – Guildhall Arts Centre – Tickets

Friday, July 1 – SHEFFIELD – Greystones – Tickets

Saturday, July 2 – DRIFFIELD – Moonbeams Festival – Tickets

Sunday, July 3 – LONDON – Blackheath Halls – Tickets

Monday, July 4 – WEMSFEST, SUSSEX: Chidham Village Hall – Tickets

Tuesday, July 5 – WORTHING – Connaught Studio – Tickets

Wednesday, July 6 – TWICKENHAM – The Exchange – Tickets

Thursday, July 7 – SETTLE – Victoria Hall – Tickets

Friday, July 8 – NEWTON STEWART & MINNIGAFF TRADITIONAL MUSIC & DANCE FESTIVAL – Tickets

Saturday, July 9 & Sunday, July 10 – TIREE MUSIC FESTIVAL – Tickets

Tuesday, July 12 – GREENOCK – Beacon Arts Centre – Tickets

Wednesday, July 13 – ALNWICK – Playhouse – Tickets

Thursday, July 14 – INVERNESS – Eden Court – Tickets

Friday, July 15 – HEBRIDES – HebCelt Festival – Tickets

Tuesday, July 26 – PETWORTH FESTIVAL, SUSSEX – Tickets

Saturday July 30 & Sunday, July 31 – BARNSLEY Underneath the Stars Festival – Tickets

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