Banjophony - Damien O'Kane & Ron Block

O'Kane has long been known as a great tenor banjo player, but he hasn't made much of a splash as an instrumentalist since his Mystery Inch album with Dave Kosky about a decade ago. Since then, Damien has been more focused on vocals - and vocalists - but now he's teamed up with bluegrass banjoman Ron Block for a fabulous fusion of folk from both sides of the Atlantic. Banjophony rhymes with "cacophony", but there the similarity ends: this album comes from the sweeter end of the Irish and American traditions, and while the emphasis is on banjo styles and sounds, the duo is augmented by a dozen fine players from several countries. The standard bluegrass instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass is extended to include flute, keys, percussion and more for a very rich and varied soundscape.

Most of Banjophony was written and arranged by Block and O'Kane, and their playful characters come through in a number of places. Folks have been killed for suggesting that you need a sense of humour to play the banjo, but both Damien and Ron fit that assumption so I'm probably safe. Miller's Gin and Battersea Skillet Liquor will both have you smiling as you sup, and No Harm Done strays happily into Gerry O'Connor territory, reminding me of his Funk the Cajun Blues. O'Kane's Crafty Colette and The Midleton Thief are more serious, written for ladies of character. All this music is unmistakably original, but there's one traditional piece on Banjophony, that intriguing Irish reel The Lobster. Other tunes here have more than a whiff of tradition about them: Potato Anxiety, Trip to Portugal, the oldtimey Lucky Rogues, and the final trio of tracks credited to Rooney and Kosky. Whether it's bluesy swing on Danish Horde, Irish jig rhythms on S. McGee Buys the Farm, a bluegrass breakdown version of Brian Boru's Reel or the simple beauty of a melody like Brown Eyes, Damien and Ron have it covered with their blended banjos.

Alex Monaghan

Album details

DAMIEN O'KANE & RON BLOCK - Banjophony 
Pure Records PRCD48 
15 tracks, 71 minutes

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