Dan Walsh – Verging on the Perpendicular
Rooksmere Records – 28 April 2017
The banjo is something of a cultish instrument. Its virtuosos tend to pass down their distinct styles through generations like esoteric knowledge, or secret fried chicken recipes. Banjo music has its own distinct vocabulary, a terminology derived from the great practitioners of the instrument’s past: players like Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and Wade Mainer. Perhaps more than any other folk instrument, the banjo remains something that is often taught one-on-one, the skills passed on from a mentor to a student in a kind of apprenticeship. As a result, there seem to be relatively few truly great banjoists around at any given time, and barely any outside of the United States.
Happily, Dan Walsh is bucking this trend. Walsh hails from Staffordshire and specialises in the ‘clawhammer’ style of playing. He has that combination of natural talent and well-honed craftsmanship that the banjo requires, but just as importantly he has a fresh, distinctive approach to the instrument. This is a result of his unique perspective: he had never heard bluegrass when he first picked up a banjo and is more likely to take inspiration from the Scottish or Irish traditions than from Appalachian folk music. His talents mean he is in high demand as a collaborator: he has recorded with harmonica player Will Pound, singer-songwriter Sunjay, and, most recently, the Urban Folk Quartet whose album Live III was one of last year’s most highly-acclaimed live records.
Verging On The Perpendicular sees Walsh returning to the Scottish and Irish music that first inspired him. Album opener The Vaults is a perfect introduction to his style: a brisk reel that takes inspiration from Ken Perlman, one of the world’s foremost scholars and practitioners of the clawhammer style. Immediately apparent, along with the great dexterity it takes to master the banjo, is the amount of emotion and variation Walsh can get into a short instrumental track. Want What You Don’t Have is the first example of Walsh’s underrated skill as a lyricist and vocalist. In interviews, he has professed a great admiration for songwriters like Jez Lowe and Paul Simon (the title of his previous album, Incidents And Accidents, is taken from a lyric in Simon’s Call Me Al). The influence of the latter is particularly evident in Want What You Don’t Have, which is full of pithy observations about life as a touring musician.
Funky Haystack is a showcase for the sheer variety of the banjo. An instrumental that does pretty much what it says on the tin, it saunters along with a percussive backbeat that manages to somehow be both dirty and precise. At the folkier end of the spectrum, a short pair of Irish polkas called Glen Cottage are eminently danceable, but at the same time full of that soft, melancholy yearning you only get with Gaelic folk music. Even sweeter and sadder is Walsh’s rendition of The Suilin (see video premiere below), a beautiful old Irish tune sung by many over the years, including the Saw Doctors, who Walsh counts among his influences (he has also played with Leo Moran, the band’s guitarist).
The album contains a neat balance between traditional material and original songwriting. Going To The USA is one of the best examples of the latter. Its apparently throwaway lyrics contain a deeper message about freedom of movement and how the threat of terrorism impacts upon normal, innocent people. In spite of the weighty theme, Walsh delivers it with the self-deprecating humour and melodic nous of Paul McCartney. All the while, the banjo keeps up an old-timey, almost skiffle-like backdrop, showing off another facet of Walsh’s mastery of rare and divergent styles.
Perhaps most impressive, at least from an instrumental point of view, are two songs played in ⅞ time – Newlyn Wind and Nearly Home – the second of which has almost the feel of gypsy jazz about it. Conversely, the strictures of the unusual time signature mean that the playing has to be more rather than less creative. Both tunes are ably backed up by Tom Chapman, the Urban Folk Quartet drummer, whose measured, minimal approach to percussion perfectly suits Walsh’s crisp playing style.
The album’s only real moment of bluegrass comes with Leave This Land, a song written about a month spent in New Zealand. The fact that it feels in no way out of place is a credit to Walsh and his proficiency in the almost infinitely varied language of his instrument. Here his playing is at its most kinetic, and his singing at its most impassioned. Elsewhere he slows things right down, most notably on Chase Suite, an intricate, bucolic tapestry that unfolds like a wordless story and transcends any of the genres he has previously embraced. It is a truly stunning piece, the playing lyrical and raw.
Out Of Here is a relatively straightforward bar-room blues, with percussion again provided by Chapman. The fact that Walsh manages to wring a substantial amount of raw emotion out of yet another different musical style is proof not only of his adaptability as a musician but also of his natural gift as a songwriter. The final, virtuoso Banish Set is even more impressive: a set of four traditional tunes, again with a distinctly Gaelic flavour to them. Here, maybe more than anywhere, the banjo truly sings. This kind of combination of technical skill, natural feel for the instrument and emotional resonance is exhilarating.
To the uninitiated, the banjo can often seem like a slightly one-dimensional instrument. It brings to mind old men on back porches singing murder ballads and songs about illegal liquor. And while that style is still perfectly valid, it is by no means a true reflection of everything the banjo has to offer. With Verging On The Perpendicular, Walsh has assembled a collection that is more than just a whistlestop tour of all the farthest-flung points on the musical map. It is the perfect balance of authenticity and flair. Without ever ignoring the past, it points the way to an exciting future for banjo music.
Verging on the Perpendicular is released on April 28th, 2017 via Rooksmere Records
April/May Solo UK Dates
19 Apr – Dog Gone Roots, Sittingbourne
20 Apr – Ritz Acoustic Club, Burnham on Sea
21 Apr – Deal Folk Club, Kent
22 Apr – Folk Weekend, Oxford
23 Apr – Nailsea Tithe Barn, Somerset
27 Apr – Katie Fitzgerald’s, Stourbridge
28 Apr – Brewtown Folk Club, Burton-on-Trent
29 Apr – Conquest Theatre, Bromyard
30 Apr – The Sunny Sailor, Maldon
01 May – Green Note, London
02 May – Bicycle Shop, Norwich
03 May – Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth
05 May – Ram Folk Club, Thames Ditton
06 May – Stanley Halls, Croydon
09 May – Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford
10 May – The Hive, Shrewsbury
12 May – Town Hall, Birmingham
13 May – (with John Dowling) Crossover Fest, Cheshire
For complete tour dates including his US Tour visit: www.danwalshbanjo.co.uk
Photo Credit: Johnny Dent