Tony Trischka and “The Green Flash Banjo” Illuminate Hilo, Hawaii

This review of a recent Tony Trischka concert is a contribution from Jack Tottle.

Tony TrischkaWhen Tony Trischka steps into the spotlight at the East Hawaii Cultural Center in Hilo, Hawaii, the first thing that grabs the audience is his banjo. The entire length of the fingerboard blazes with iridescent green inlays that suggest some magical banjo-related event may be about to occur.

And it is. There are few musicians indeed who are capable of pulling off a dynamic one-person bluegrass banjo concert built around sheer instrumental brilliance. (Another of those few is, of course, Tony’s former student, Béla Fleck.[1])

Tony’s technical preeminence is immediately apparent. He is not afraid to play an easy-going tune at one moment and then follow it with digital pyrotechnics that threaten to push past the limit of what is humanly possible. And it’s all accomplished with an unwavering musical “groove” incorporating—as Tim Stafford of Blue Highway would say—the five essentials of bluegrass: “Timing, taste, tone, tuning, and technique.”

A major component of Tony’s success stems from a mastery of—and obvious respect for—the music of the great players preceding him. To this foundation Tony adds remarkably wide-ranging creativity, both on traditional material and on his own quite progressive compositions. The final ingredient is his good natured humor, humility and relaxed ability to connect on a personal basis with his audience. The resulting concert environment is warm and magical.

Early in the show Tony relates how, around 1963, at the age of fourteen in Syracuse, New York he started learning to play banjo from a seventeen-year-old named Hal Glatzer. By the mid-sixties youngsters in the South had been getting hooked on the banjo for nearly two decades by listening to Earl Scruggs’ virtuoso bluegrass performances on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

However, what first drew Tony to the banjo was the comparatively rudimentary folk banjo picking of Dave Guard[2] on the Kingston Trio’s 1959 pop hit Charlie On the M. T. A. Tony then started working through Pete Seeger’s folk manual, How to Play the 5-String Banjo. Hal, a city kid from Manhattan, had picked up elements of Earl Scruggs’ landmark style from some of the young aspiring players who jammed in New York’s Washington Square. These he passed on to Tony over a period of a few months. Building on the ground-breaking work of the southern bluegrass masters, Tony soon figured out the then-revolutionary concepts from which New Englander Bill Keith had fashioned his new “melodic” approach to bluegrass banjo.

Following the short autobiographical segment, Tony surprises the audience by bringing Hal Glatzer himself onstage. Hal, who now lives on Hawaii’s Big Island (and produced this concert) currently plays mostly vintage swing and gypsy jazz guitar. But for the occasion Hal returns to the banjo to pick a couple of instrumentals he taught Tony back in Syracuse. Tony improvises some great harmony parts to create an enjoyable twin banjo sound.

The balance of the evening showcases Tony’s musical take on a variety of innovators spanning the classical/ragtime banjo of Vess Ossman, the folk styles of Pete Seeger, traditional dance tunes, the peerless compositions of Earl Scruggs, and Tony’s own contributions to bluegrass banjo repertoire. It is all presented with such energy, confidence and joy, that the audience—much of it obviously new to music of this kind—is practically ready to climb the walls. The response is thunderous. It’s clear these folks had no idea how much fun they were in for. The house is overflowing with new and enthusiastic converts to bluegrass.

All of which—of course—nourishes the souls of all of us who love this music. As the Hawaiians would say:  “Hana hou” (“bravo”—“more”—“encore”), Tony!



[1] I’m reminded of the incomparable virtuoso Scott Stoneman, who once exulted about his fiddling protégé, Zeke Dawson:  “Hot damn!  When I teaches ‘em, they stays taught!”  Though he modestly declines any mention of his own teaching role, Tony could be forgiven if he were to make a similar claim regarding Béla.


[2] Coincidentally, two members of the Kingston Trio first met in Hawaii in junior high at the Punahou School in Honolulu.   Early on Dave Guard and Bob Shane (who later played banjo and guitar respectively in the trio) learned ukulele in school and became fascinated by native Hawaiian slack key guitarists, among them icon Gabby Pahinui.



Associate Professor Emeritus Jack Tottle is the founder and former Director of  the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.  He now lives in North Kohala, Hawaii, where he continues to perform from time to time with his current band, Bluegrass Jack.