At the end of January, 2021, a new banjo album was released by the group known as Banjomania. Almost anything fun in 2020-2021 is seen as just what the doctor ordered, something to uplift our spirits in troubling, rapidly changing times. This music though, is completely timeless. Banjomania is always about spreading joy, and this album really packs a wallop of jubilation.
The group was started in California around 1989 by tenor banjoist Steve Simpson, who is also credited as the Executive Producer. Brad Roth is the plectrum banjoist of the group, as well as Musical Director on this album. Doug Mattocks, who also plays tenor banjo, adds the sound of the 5-string banjo to round out the group. This kind of ensemble, celebrating three styles of banjos at once, is surprisingly rare. This is the gang to do it though. Their musicianship, sensitivity, song choices, and overall sound together just can’t be beat.
This is the third album with this line-up of Banjomania. The first was “Pick Yourself Up” in May of 1994, and then “Christmas Remembered” in November 1994. They had another release that did not feature Doug and Brad, making it over 20 years since this group has performed together. The banjo world is now celebrating a reunion with this new release, and my goodness we can’t get enough!
If you are a fan of this style of music, you understand. A recording like this is becoming more and more rare, and the taste level of these master players is absolutely top notch. Eric Messerschmidt plays the string bass beautifully with a great tone that holds everything together. Dick Hardwick’s drumming is subtle, never rising above the importance of the instruments we came to hear.
Brian Shaw deserves credit for recording and mixing this album with what must be a set of keen ears. The recording quality is really another element of what makes this such a stand-out album of banjo music. Some of the very best banjo playing recorded was done either long ago, live, or in less ideal studio settings. They definitely hit it out of the park with this one. This album should win a grammy. Some of the magic was even caught on film by Joanne Mullins.
Never Too Busy
The album begins with this song actually written by Eddie Peabody, and published in his 1932 banjo manual “Eddie Peabody and His Banjo.” A great way to start things off. Somewhat obscure outside of some 4-string banjo circles, but a fitting tribute to a giant influence in this music.
Composed in 1928 by Victor Young, this became one of the most beloved early jazz standards and appears all over the place with wonderful renditions. If you didn’t already know, there is a bit of a history with banjo music and singalongs, and this is one people will be singing along with at home.
This is Brad’s arrangement of a song originally from the 1953 movie “Calamity Jane” performed by Doris Day. This one came a bit out of left field, but you can see it makes an excellent four-string banjo song. The rhythms in the melody just set this up to be buckets of fun.
With a 5-string banjo around, you’ve got to add an old tune like Red Wing. Originally a popular song from 1907, it quickly became a favorite melody amongst “old-time” fiddle players and nobody bothers singing the out of date lyrics. Further evidence of the useless lyrics is the song “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie, or the parody popular overseas in WWI “The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplain.” A simple catchy tune like this is a great way to let these musicians shine bringing out a classic melody together with ease.
Shaking the Blues Away
This is the first of three Irving Berlin songs in a row! This one also has a historic footnote; it was played by the all women musical group The Ingenues (The Band Beautiful). There is a wonderful film of them performing in 1928, and this song gets the most best treatment of all…. 18 ladies all playing banjos!
From 1928, this Berlin number may have never seen such a treatment. More of a crooning love song in it’s day, now it’s an upbeat number with 5-string banjo at the top. Irving was known for being upset when people mess with his melodies, so surely this would have made him proud. “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
A Couple Of Swells
The 1948 film “Easter Parade” was a huge success for Mr. Berlin, full of his songs and one of his favorite singers Fred Astaire. This song features Fred and Judy Garland, both singing and dancing with fake beard make-up on. I’m sure for many people hearing this tune will conjure that image up right quick. This is a dynamic rendition. It’s not a barn-burner, but nobody’s snoozin’ with all the pretty interplay of banjos and a nice sounding groove from the rhythm section.
I’m Coming Virginia
This song by Heywood/Cook was first recorded by the great vocalist Ethel Waters in 1926. It was also recorded by such great 1920’s bandleaders as Frankie Trumbauer (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang) and Paul Whiteman (featuring Bing Crosby). Unless your really a 20’s aficionado you might not know this song, and that’s what makes it such a great choice. Some sweet solo lines flow throughout this number. It’s got a smooth mellow feel that you just want to keep going forever.
Painting the Clouds with Sunshine
This title track was written by Burke/Dubin in 1929 for the film Gold Diggers Of Broadway. The film no longer exists, but the song’s performance by Nick Lucas is one of the surviving scenes. However, this is clearly a reference to Eddie Peabody’s version, recorded in 1929 with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the flipside.
Here comes the old chestnut Avalon. This is one that maybe you feel like you’ve heard it plenty of times, but in the right hands can still really get you going. The version here wonderfully weaves the classic 4-string banjo sound with plenty of bluegrass licks filling in the gaps. A little bit of banjo heaven, right here on earth.
Long Way to Tipperary
This British music hall song has a long and disputed history. One thing that helped it gain world-wide popularity was the 1914 recording by Irish tenor John McCormack. If there isn’t a classic banjo rendition of it yet, then this is it right here. Everyone shines on this track and it’s a great way to end your visit with Banjomania.
Although, you may just want it to start the album all over again from the top. When it’s banjo music of this quality, you might as well keep the party going. Once again, the banjo world owes great thanks to you Banjomania!
Download the album through this link: https://banjomania.hearnow.com/?fbclid=IwAR3Iy–cS6oS6h6iBmqhb7nDFbN4XyQWljd4Z2O-0KrO-URg9MpbSG-5YBY