You know how it is when you go see this band that you're sort of interested in, but maybe not really sure, and then they turn out to be surprisingly amazing and afterward you end up buying everything you can get your hands on by them and becoming a total fanatic? Then you're kicking yourself for not having been hip to them before you had the chance to see them live or maybe even hang out with them and have some kind of cool adventure? That's kind of how I feel about the banjo workshop I attended a few years ago when New Orleans roots musician Al Tharp came to town. I had just been learning clawhammer style for less than a couple of months when my teacher suggested I go. Before I go any further here's a clip of Al:
In case you're wondering, clawhammer banjo is the style where the player strikes downward on the string with the edge of his nail (as opposed to an upward pluck) and is really a very old style of playing that goes all the way back to Africa and reveals the instrument's origins on that continent. It's very, very different than the more well known bluegrass banjo sound known as Scruggs style where the strings are plucked with metal fingerpicks. Al Tharp is truly a clawhammer master and, more importantly, has just about the most original take on this sound that I have ever heard. He did spend time deep in the Appalachians, learning first-hand from masters like Tommy Jarrell and Lee Hammons but I think one of the things that really helps make his style as ridiculously funky as it is, is the fact that he has now lived in New Orleans for some time and has thoroughly absorbed the deep roots of the region. He takes Cajun fiddle moves and mixes them with the second line and out comes something that no one else does. Here's Al playing the old-time standard "John Henry." (MP3) I think his thumb has a lot to do with it-the way he just pops it so hard and relentlessly, as well has his smooth, four-on-the-floor footstomps which almost sound like a techno bass drum. Speaking of which, a bit of Al's playing found it's way into part two of Buck 65's magnum opus, internet giveaway "Dirtbike." "Square Dance" (MP3) By the way, faithful followers of the WFMU blog might recognize the voice heard at the end of the track... Basically, ever since I went to Al's workshop I've been trying really hard to catch some of that sound-with varying degrees of success. I sure wish I had another chance to sit down and get some first-hand pointers but at least I have my recording of the workshop that a fellow attendee slipped me. Hope you dig hearing this very funky man. Here's one more taste:"Boatin Up Sandy." (MP3) Enjoy!