Friday, March 2, 2012

Danny Barnes: 21st Century Old-Time Banjo

Good morning, & a happy Banjo Friday to you you & all.  A new month of banjo adventures are upon us here at Robert Frost’s Banjo.

& I do expect March to indeed be an adventurous month here on Banjo Friday—& what better way to start the month off than with banjo wiz & innovator Danny Barnes?  I had the good fortune to hear Danny Barnes this January at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland; I wasn’t familiar with Barnes’ music before that show, but I was pretty much floored by his inventiveness, musical spirit & sheer banjo chops.

However, as you’ll hear in the two video clips below, Danny Barnes is not about simply churning out new versions of old-time banjo standards, fun as that may be. His musical vision encompasses innovation to a high degree. In fact, Barbes is the first person I’ve heard or heard about who makes extensive use of looping technology while playing the banjo! It may perhaps be difficult to imagine the sound of an expertly picked (& sometimes frailed) 5-string banjo playing on top of a funky bass beat & looped fuzz guitars, but I can assure you that Barnes has an impeccable ear for orchestration, & these songs always come across as fully realized musical statements rather than eccentricities.  I’d certainly compare his work very favorably to the music of two other looping artists I like a lot, cellist Zoë Keating & guitarist Matt Stevens.

Of course, Keating & Stevens are both instrumental composers, whereas Barnes composes a lot of songs, & his lyrics are consistently wise, witty & quirky in a way that dovetails perfectly with his music. One thing that’s notable about Barnes—he thinks contrapuntally, which is ideal for the banjo. Unlike the guitar, the banjo is at its best when its music is more scale-based & modal—music where melody & accompaniment weave together rather than exist in parallel planes, as when a guitar lays down chordal harmony under a melody. In this sense, too, the looping tends to accentuate the contrapuntal nature of the music.

Barnes’ most recent cd projects are based on the music from his album Rocket, released thru ATO Records. This set of songs exists in three recorded incarnations: as a full-on studio album (Rocket), as demos under the title Poison (which has been released as a cassette!) & solo acoustic versions as Angel. Barnes is currently fascinated with cassette tape as a recording medium, & you can hear him talk about this, as well as the recording of Rocket in an excellent interview by Dreamspider Publicity’s Erin Scholze for Lingua Musica in the third video below. I know three videos is a lot, but Barnes’ music & ideas are sufficiently complex & interesting to warrant this—plus, Lingua Musica rocks!*

Danny Barnes made his first mark on the music scene with the Austin-based band the Bad Livers back in the 1990s; since he moved to Seattle in 2000, Barnes played with a group called Danny Barnes & Three Old Codgers, & has also collaborated both with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell & the Dave Matthews Band. These days he’s touring solo—& I already have his next Portland show (May 10th at the Goodfoot) on my calendar!

There’s a good selection of Barnes’ music on YouTube if you want to explore further—which I recommend highly. In addition (with Barnes’ blessing—he even mentioned this at his show) there’s an extensive collection of music from his live shows at the Internet Archive—in fact, you can even listen to the January 29th show I attended.

Because there is a good selection of Barnes on YouTube, it was a challenge limiting myself to two music videos, especially since I wanted to break with my usual two video limit overall & include the Lingua Musica interview. In the first video Barnes plays a memorably reconfigured & re-imagined version of the old time song “Crow Black Chicken”; if you’d like to hear a “straight” version of the song, check out the New Lost City Ramblers here.   “Caveman” is an original piece from his 2009 release Pizza Box, & on that you get to hear not just Barnes’ formidable banjo chops & great songwriting, but also his use of looping.

Great musician—I know you’ll enjoy & be inspired!

* You may be interested to know that Lingua Musica has a direct connection to this blog because our very own Rockstar Poet in Residence, Barbie Dockstader Angell, is also a member of the interviewing team & has conducted interviews with David LaMotte, Nicky Sanders of Steep Canyon Rangers & Roseanne Cash!


  1. Interesting. I never heard of this guy before; I'll have to look into him.

  2. I don't know what I enjoyed more - the music or that awesome photo at the top of the post.

  3. Hi Roy & HKatz

    Roy: Yes, I strongly recommend checking out Danny Barnes' music!

    HKatz: It's says a lot for that photo--which is pretty darned awesome--that it can compete favorably with the music! Thanks.

  4. Lovin' those glasses/underwater goggles(?)!

  5. Kat: Isn't that a great photo? Thanks!


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