Ken Perlman,
Northern Banjo
(Copper Creek, 2001)

Somewhere along the line, the banjo became associated with the South. Ken Perlman is out to change that perception with Northern Banjo, a cheerful exploration of the banjo traditions of eastern Canada and the northern U.S. With his self described "Northern clawhammer" style, Perlman shows off the songs he knows best, drawing from native American songs, Celtic fiddle tunes and a few original compositions.

The album is well balanced between bouncy, lighthearted tunes like the opening "The Poppy Leaf/Stack Of Barley/East Newk Of Bear River" and slower, more thoughtful pieces like "The Braes of Auchtertyre/Caber Feidh." Fans of Celtic music will get a jolt of recognition from tracks like "Shandon Bells/The Orange and Blue/Chorus Jig," and be surprised at how well these usually fiddle-ruled tunes play on the banjo.

My personal favorite discovery on the album is "Kenmure's Awa'/Wilfred's Fiddle/Jackson's Jig." I've heard "Kenmure's Awa'" more often than any fiddle tune, but it took a banjo album to tell me the proper name and origin of the tune. The blending of quadrille music and jig is especially smooth in this piece. Perlman provides only one original tune, "Road to Mexico," but this wonderful evocative tune is a standout on an already solid album. The bluegrassy treatment and banjo lead make it sound like the lost opening to some forgotten Spaghetti Western.

They may be somewhat out of place on an album that is after all named after the banjo, but Perlman's guitar solos act as a palate cleanser between the more energetic group pieces. Mostly slow, contemplative pieces, Perlman's fingerstyle guitar brings more complexity to tunes like "Niel Gow's Lament for His Second Wife" than you would expect from a single instrument. "The Sweetness of Mary/Mason's Apron" lulls the listener towards daydream before bouncing them back onto the strings of the song.

The guitar solos are beautiful, but the banjo is undoubtedly the star of the album. It gives a softer, more approachable sound to some of the fiddle tunes and an oddly modern sound to the traditional pieces. Despite the banjo's performance on this album, the other instruments are never overwhelmed. The well-chosen supporting players strengthen each song, and no one musician wholly dominates the album, even Perlman himself. The banjo is often used as a lone instrument, something played solo by isolated amateurs. Perlman makes it the lead voice of an ensemble choir, and shows off the hidden face of the instrument. The result is a joy to the ear and a welcome addition to any folk collection.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 30 November 2002

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