Damien O’Kane & Ron Block – Banjophonics: Album Review

Craftsmen of their art, Damien O’Kane & Ron Block whip up a banjo-fuelled storm.

Release date: 1st July 2022

Label: Pure Records

Format: digital / CD

The follow up, of sorts, to 2018’s Banjophony strikes another blow for the much-maligned banjo. The duo who lead the fight on behalf of banjo players (banjoists – although I quit like ‘banjoistas’) everywhere is led by Ron Block (or ‘Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station’ and proud owner of more instrument and string endorsements than you can shake a stick at) and the man described as “the single best four string banjoist in Irish Music,” Damien O’Kane.

While D & R are up and leading the crusade from the front, they’re accompanied by a suitably classy backup brigade that includes Sierra Hull and Barry Bales from Ron’s corner and O’Kane/Rusby/Pure Records regulars Stevie Byrnes, Duncan Lyall and Josh Clark (who’s also responsible for a lovely bright mix). Add cameos from Kate Rusby, a rare sighting of David Kosky and the common presence of Mike McGoldrick (well – a whistle is easy to carry in your back pocket) and Banjophonics has the feel of a strong fantasy band line up.

It’s high octane stuff. With their first album Banjophony, they set up the partnership, felt their way, and established a communication. On Banjophonics, the empathy is telepathic and the sparks fly. With The Taxi Driver/Close Enough (”close enough’ to jazz but don’t worry…) set giving them chance to warm up their fingers, the percussion soon kicks in to give the arrangements a depth and drive as they skip, tumble and dance happily, merging seamlessly into one another. Certainly a soundtrack for a Summer picnic, with hard-boiled eggs, bags of salad, heaps of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer.

The McGoldrick cameo on Happy Little Phoebe/Manny Mountain is a delight as usual. The thought that he’d be good to have on board as a constant presence is countered by the notion that too much of a good thing leaves one wanting less, a cautionary tale should we ever take Mike McGoldrick for granted. Potential here for a real pant swinging hoedown in the dancing areas.

There’s also a strong personal theme that runs through the tunes – family members are much of the inspiration; fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and wives. Tunes created for those they love, be they on the more melancholy side – EDB & Lady Grey being Ron’s piece written for his children as he ‘s pulled by the touring musician’s life – or those celebratory and joyful outings where it’s impossible to resist skipping along. Sure we’re never too far away from a delicious rumble of notes…Ron’sthankful Bide The Night giving way to a pacey flourish on The Fiddler’s Gun proof that the balance is in sync.

Amongst the traditional and original tunes, they toss in a couple of songs, each taking a turn to spotlight and then support with their vocals. Damien adds a vocal to Barry Kerr’s Woman Of No Place, backed by Kate. It’s a real stomper (possibly held slightly in check) and highlight on first hearing. In live performance, it might even possibly be a brooding contender to hold a candle to his showstopping Breaking Of Omagh Jail.

Ron sings Endless Wanderer where he muses over times when his journies to meet people and places are curtailed but of course, any chance s of getting maudlin are immediately dispelled by the O’Kane pairing of Happy Sevens/Monster Rabbit that’s another scene-stealer. Regardless of the time signature shenanigans going on – after all, most of us are mere mortals when it comes to musical scores – it’s a belting pice where the simplicity of a regular beat and a bit of Duncan Lyall’s moog lift the set into the stratosphere. Another of the plethora of opportunities to give the tunes some good old’Banjo welly’.

And thoroughly warmed up, the Soundcheck Sonics/Andy Brown’s set provides a suitably uplifting contender for ‘most notes played in one track along with some solid Kosky guitar warmth holding the piece down. Confirmation of the life-affirming qualities of skilful and riotously played banjo music. When Damien and Ron strike, it’s like the fluorescent chaos created by the clash of wands in a duel between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort; or maybe like Ace Frehley from Kiss when he used to shoot rockets from the guitar neck…imagine that in the big tent at Underneath The Stars Festival (risk assessment permitting naturally). And how long before Microsoft are offering a ‘Banjo Hero’ game for the XBox?

Can’t wait for the next album to make up a banjo trilogy – the music is sure to be just as spectacular but just wondering what they’re going to call it….

Here a bit of live banjo trickery from Damien & Ron:

Damien O’Kane online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Youtube

Ron Block online: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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