Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.
As I mention elsewhere on the site, after teaching about 70 week-long programs to date, usually working alone, I’ve decided to try some teaching at a number of larger programs.
Here’s my report on Banjo Camp North, a wonderful first-time event held outside of Boston the first weekend of May.
BCN is the brainchild of noted clawhammer banjo player Ken Perlman, and Mike Holmes, best known as publisher of Mugwumps magazine, specializing in instruments and old-time music. Patterned after the Tennessee Banjo Institutes of about ten years ago and the more recent Maryland Banjo Institute, the idea is to combine banjo instructors from both the old-time and bluegrass worlds, and offer all sorts of learning and jamming opportunities to a large group of campers. More than 150 folks signed up, and by all accounts the weekend was a hit.
The setting is Grotonwood, a Baptist retreat center about an hour northwest of Boston. With many cabins, a large dining hall and several large meeting rooms, we pretty well took over the place and rang the banjos from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. The impressive instructor list included Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Bill Evans and Tony Ellis, and from the old-time sector, Bruce Molsky, Brad Leftwich, Reed Martin, Mac Benford, fiddler Alan Jabbour, and others. A great group of player/teachers! The bluegrass classes ranged from elementary jam skills to dissection of the styles of Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe, writing instrumentals, playing fiddle tunes, understanding the neck through the circle of fifths and chord shapes. Naturally, there were many great offerings for the clawhammer players (a little over half of the students). I wish I could have sampled more, but I was tightly scheduled! I did get to a class by Bruce Molsky, and learned a neat three-part arrangement of Backstep Cindy, with some challenging moves for a clawhammer duffer like myself.
Along with the hands-on teaching were “demos”, essentially mini-concerts and discussions on different styles, with several instructors collaborating. There were even three short one-on-one opportunities per instructor, available by signup, and jam sessions with instructors participating.
Of course, jamming with just banjos is not necessarily ideal, so Ken and Mike enlisted some good local fiddle, guitar, and mandolin players, whose talents were most welcome.
Saturday night’s main event was an instructor concert, a real treat for all of us. Tony Trischka and I teamed up for a little anniversary reunion — 30 years ago this month (May, 1971) we made our first recordings, the first Country Cooking album for Rounder. We dusted off Tequila Mockingbird and Big Ben, and they sounded pretty darned good! Later, Tony and I continued our reunion with a traditional late-night donut run. An unexpected highlight: While stopping at a convenience store for directions, the clerk started asking us about banjos and ended up inviting us to play, right there in the store. Much to our own surprise, we accepted. Our mini-set started with (appropriately enough) Who’s Sorry Now, included Dueling Banjos (hey, I never do that!), and finished (appropriately enough) with Bye Bye Blues. The audience was small — just the clerk and one police officer on break — but appreciative. Then it was off for donuts.
Forty-eight hours wasn’t nearly enough to do everything I’d like, but I did get in a neat old-time jam, got to play a surprising good-sounding bass banjo — made from a sawed-off bass drum, and heard some great picking by Bill Keith, Mac Benford and Howie Bursen. The food was better than passable, and the woodsy setting was quite agreeable as well. Ken and Mike are already starting to plan next year’s event, aiming at the third weekend of May. Watch this site for the official announcement, which I’ll put up once it’s confirmed.