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DAMIEN O'KANE & RON BLOCK - Banjophonics 

DAMIEN O'KANE & RON BLOCK - Banjophonics 
Pure Records PRCD56  

Not surprisingly, there isn't quite as much anticipation, innovation or consternation about this album as about this duo's first recording: Ron and Damien have been doing their ‘thang’ for a while now. The 2018 release of Banjophony was the beginning of a cascade of concerts, awards, and press coverage which is unlikely to be repeated for album number two - at least not on the same scale. And anyway, Banjophonics is considerably shorter than its big brother, although still a good length by modern CD standards (54 minutes).

In case you don't know, Ulsterman Damien O'Kane plays Irish-style tenor banjo and California-raised Ron Block plays bluegrass-style 5-string banjo. Both dabble with guitars and such, and both provide backing instrumentals and vocals in a number of well-known bands, but their collaboration is all about banjos. This second release is almost all Block and O'Kane compositions, with a wee reel by Aly Bain and a song by Barry Kerr being the exceptions. Damien and Ron deliver one vocal number each, and the arrangements throughout owe a great deal to an exceptional guest list: Steven Byrnes on guitar, Duncan Lyall on bass and keys, Barry Bales on bass, Josh Clark and Jay Bellerose on percussion, backing vocals from Kate Rusby, a little mystery guitar from Dave Kosky, and sparkling cameos from mandolin whizz Sierra Hull and whistle maestro Mike McGoldrick.

Enough waffle - what else have we got here? A backwoods dozen duets, the hornpipey Taxi Driver and the swing fling Close Enough, a pair of punchy modern reels, the gentle swirl of Daisy's Dance, two tempo-changing jigs, the delicate air Bide The Night by Block, the obligatory 7/8 dance from O'Kane, a more bluegrassy number in Whirlwind and a nod to Irish banjo greats on Soundcheck Sonics. It's all good, but if you want my recommendation go right to the end and choose The Thrifty Wife - Ron's recipe, long story, with a dedication which makes me think he should be writing and I should learn banjo! Praised by their peers, attracting fans like flies to a fry-up, these two pluckers don't take themselves too seriously - their fun, their sense of danger and devilment, comes across in The Fiddler's Gun and many other places, making Banjophonics a constant source of smiles.

Alex Monaghan


This review appeared in Issue 145 of The Living Tradition magazine