Banjophonics – Damien O’Kane & Ron Block

Forget all those jokes that take aim at banjo players. As Damien O’Kane and Ron Block proudly proclaim on the inside sleeve of their new joint venture, appropriately titled Banjophonics, “Ain’t no thang, like a banjo strang.”

Banjophonics drives that point home. Granted, they aren’t the sole performers on the album — other artists involved include Sierra Hull (mandolin), Jay Bellerose and Josh Clark (percussion), Steven Byrnes and David Kosky (guitars), Duncan Lyall and Barry Bales (double bass), Kate Rusby (backing vocals), and Michael McGoldrick (whistle) — but, as expected, their dual banjos take center stage. So too, this set of songs mostly find them taking credit for the compositions as well. O’Kane is an award-winning and highly accredited musician of Irish origin, while Block is best remembered not only as an astute virtuoso, but also a long-time member of Alison Krauss & Union Station.

What makes this pairing unique is that Block plays in the Earl Scruggs-derived three finger picking style on a five string banjo, while O’Kane plays a tenor banjo in the Celtic fashion using a flatpick. The tonal variations between the two instruments make for some of the most compelling aspects of this recording.

Naturally then, the emphasis is on instrumentals, with various medleys — The Taxi Driver/Close Enough, Happy Little Phoebe/Manny Mountain, Happy Sevens/Monster Rabbit, and Happy Chappy/Marine’s Melody in particular — more or less setting the tone for the album as a whole. And while the mood is mostly rousing and robust, it doesn’t preclude the tender trappings of Daisy’s Dance, the delicate designs served up in the wistful repose, Ride the Night, or the carefully considered, The Thrifty Wife.

The Appalachian influences are evident in the fusion of certain old world elements with heartland happenstance. Naturally, the contributions of the two prominent players get equal emphasis, but so too, the cohesion and continuity remain intact throughout. When the pair do opt for a rare vocal, as on Endless Wander and Woman Of No Place, soothing sentiments are brought firmly to the fore. 

So too, offerings such as Whirlwind and EDB & Lady Grey find those those earnest yet engaging attributes creating an added embrace. 

Ultimately, Banjophonics effectively redefines the role of the banjo as a harmonious instrument that can not only underscore a musical offering, but also define its delivery. Credit Block and O’Kane with providing the proof.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.