Bill Evans,
In Good Company
(Native & Fine, 2012)

A recent review I saw characterizes In Good Company as "a real treat for New Age fans." It wasn't meant as a compliment, and it isn't quite fair, but it does speak to the problem inherent in attempting a mostly genre-unbound, largely instrumental album on which the banjo serves as the lead instrument. A good part of the consequence, unfortunately, is to remind the listener of the banjo's inherent limitations. An acoustic guitar album with no particular stylistic focus can work if the player is sufficiently skilled and tasteful, as a body of recordings attests. The five-string banjo, though, seems forever intended as a vehicle for folk-based music. Outside that context, it lacks the versatility and heft to hold one's attention very long.

Californian Bill Evans is certainly an accomplished banjo player, and I am all in favor of accomplished banjo players. Here, however, notwithstanding the technical excellence and the assistance of acoustic-string masters such as Darol Anger, Stuart Duncan, Laurie Lewis, David Grier, Rob Ickes and more, much of this feels like a kind of intelligent, occasionally bluegrass-inflected pop music best suited to lilting in the background. Beyond that, it will be of interest mostly to other banjoists curious about what how their instrument might function outside its genre ghetto.

To my hearing it sounds all right behind Tim O'Brien as he sings the beloved Underground Railroad anthem "Follow the Drinking Gourd," though that's precisely where you'd expect a banjo to sound good. It was probably sung in the mid-19th century to the accompaniment of a homemade gourd banjo.

Bluegrass arrangements of Beatles songs, ordinarily forgettable as soon as the novelty has faded, have been around since the Charles River Valley Boys' album of Lennon-McCartney covers in the mid-1960s. Evans devotes four cuts to same, of which the brief "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (1:15) is undeniably charming and infectious, no doubt because of the incongruity of a downhome instrument's taking on Lucy's airy psychedelia.

I don't dislike this CD, which has its points. It's just that I can see the likes of me are not its intended audience. On the other hand, what that audience may be -- beyond new agers, if any are left -- is unclear to me.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 July 2012

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