COPYRIGHT 1999 CHICAGO TRIBUNE
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 1999
Tony Trischka offers musical, historical banjo ride
By David Royko
Tony Trischka is a banjoist, whose show Monday night at the intimate
David Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville included a reading from a
children's book, as well as 19th Century newspaper descriptions of the
banjo. His on-stage persona is low key. He performed most of the
evening unaccompanied. And he fielded a few questions from audience
members on subjects as arcane as the shape of his instrument's bridge.
One understandable response to such a show might be: Yawn.
Then why was Trischka's performance so entertaining?
One reason is that Trischka knows how to build from the bottom up.
By beginning with a technically demanding yet melodically appealing
tune, he instantly set the "gee" quotient high, as in "Gee whiz, this
guy can play." Bluegrass and progressive acoustic music fans have known
this for more than 25 years, and it is why various players, most
famously Bela Fleck, have sought him out as a teacher and snapped up
his many recordings.
Except for all but the hardest of hard-core banjo nuts, an entire
evening of dazzling, modern banjo tunes quickly becomes wearying, like
too much dark chocolate.
What Trischka did was to slow down, and ultimately turn backwards. Not
back to lesser music but to an earlier time of American musical
One of Trischka's gifts is understanding how music from the past 150
years is connected, and presenting these connections in such a way that
the lesson becomes secondary to enjoying the music.
Never did the history supersede the art, and ultimately, what Trischka
presented was two hours of gripping and gorgeous music.
Trischka's easy, mildly self deprecating humor, coupled with his
obvious sense of fascination with the development of his instrument and
the musical society around it, kept the patter moving.
So did engrossing musical selections, such as a lilting 1870s "Spanish
Fandango," a trio of instrumental arrangements of 1950s-era Pete Seeger
tunes, which demonstrated how innovative a musician the elder "folky"
always was, and a batch of Trischka originals that were scattered
through the two sets.
And like his composing, this show was unique and clever in ways that
are characteristic of a musical mind of breadth and wit.
After reading an excerpt from Preston Sturges' autobiography near
show's end, where the filmmaker's mother describes the misery her
husband's banjo obsession caused, Trischka tore into a medley of three
Earl Scruggs tunes, confirming and demolishing Mrs. Sturges' point.
And while other banjoists might struggle to get an audience to
participate, Trischka's string of Beatles tunes--John Lennon started
out as a banjoist, Trischka reminded listeners--almost dared the crowd
to keep quiet, so inviting it was to fill in the words after the
banjoist had squeezed so much of the Liverpudleans' arrangements onto