Reviews of VT146CD 'Still Fretting'


 

To look at, he seems to be the most unlikely of traditional musicians. Then consider those podgy fingers. Surely they cannot offer any dexterity? Wrong! Here is England's finest banjo player by some distance and a man who is equally highly regarded in folk dance music and classical banjo circles.

 

From boyhood, Rob has been playing with the Dartmoor Pixie Band and we hear him on fourtracks here with Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice, his long-term musical partners from that band. The unique swing and bounce of their playing is legendary, but because their style and repertoire are so well known, it is the other items on this album that create most interest. Listen and be amazed at his solo playing of Joe Morley's Zanara, for example. This is no example of flashy pyrotechnics like those paraded by the modern bluegrass exponents of his instrument, but the playing of a man with a profound musicality and the message that his instrument can offer subtlety and tonal variety.

 

Rob is also featured as, the lead instrument of a banjo trio and with Bill Murch on mouth organ and the album concludes with a delightful duo with Tom Barriball, Rob's boyhood banjo teacher. The album should turn many heads; in many ways it is unique. Listen to Rob and swallow all those old banjo jokes.

fRoots

 

There appears to be renewed interest in classic English banjo playing, with three simulating releases recently from Howard and Steve Yates, Ray Andrews and now Rob Murch.

 

If you are not familiar with this style of banjo music it can best be described as finger style playing with its emphasis on 'classical' and 'refined drawing room styles'. It also embraces the American, it was much influenced by the travelling minstrel shows that were popular in the 19th Century, and European dance music. Pieces especially composed for banjo by the likes of Joe Morley 1861-1937, Emile Grimshaw 1880-1943, and many more together with some traditional items form the largest part of the classic English banjo style repertoire.

 

Rob Murch is a much respected musician it both the classic style and in the field of traditional folk music. He is a member of the famed Pixie band from Dartmoor and also performs as a trio with Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice. On 'Still Fretting' Rob plays a fine selection of tunes from the banjo repertoire gives each his own exciting individual interpretation and takes the banjo to new heights. He is joined on some tracks by Mark and Jason. The music is lively and happy, played with great skill and precision.

 

For the enthusiast of the banjo this is a real treat, but, if like some you are generally not impressed by the instrument give this CD a listen and have your mind changed. Different, skilful and very enjoyable. A gem from the commendable Veteran label.

The Living Tradition

 

Rob Murch has been playing the banjo since the age of eleven taught by the late Tom Barriball of Launceston. He started performing with the Dartmoor Pixie Band as a youngster and still performs regularly with them.

 

This CD is a selection of 16 tracks and a great wealth of instrumental prowess. Rob is joined by Mark Bazeley (melodeon), Jason Rice (accordion), Mike Redman (second banjo), Anthony Peabody (cello banjo) and Bill Murch (mouthorgan) on a number of tracks. The Park Crescent March by Cyril B Burnard (track 16) is a banjo duet with Tom Barriball recorded at Tom's home and included here as a tribute to him (I loved this track).

 

I would recommend this CD to anyone who enjoys acoustic folk music. Even for those not normally drawn to the banjo, this will be a very pleasant surprise. There is something for everyone here: Great dance tunes, sentimental and nostalgic tunes and tunes that will quite simply astound - you won't believe a banjo can sound like this.

 

There are some great old favourites here that, quite dankly, had me dancing round the kitchen. Tavern in the Town l Chinese Break down are very jolly and upbeat. Hot Punch / The Louisberg Square and the rendition of The Bluebell Polka are really bouncy with a lovely tight bass from Mark Bazeley's melodeon. Cock of the North / Princess Margaret's Fancy / Smash the Windows / The Irish Washerwoman is a lovely set of tunes where Rob's skills are complemented by his father Bill's fabulous harmonica playing (where does he get his breath from? 1 bet he doesn't smoke!) On Going Down South / Oh Johnny / Winkie Reel Jason Rice provides a great trebly accordion backbone for these tunes.

 

On Glitter of Steel by Thomas Dorward, Schaeffer's Jig by Arling Schaeffer and Queen of the Burlesque by Arthur Tilley you will experience a banjo trio. A cello banjo is sadly something of a rarity, but here it's in perfect union with it's two smaller counterparts. Track 14 is my favourite of these three tunes. Rob uses harmonics here to great effect.

 

The solo tracks are a great monument to the banjo as a solo instrument, as it is all too often confined to the rhythm section. Kissing Cup Waltz written by Joe George, is a lovely waltz, and this interpretation is dedicated to Tom Barriball, and played on the banjo made for Rob by him. Zarana , from Joe Morley, is described as an 'oriental two-step' and has a distinctly foreign feel about it. It is a very complicated piece and has been performed here to perfection (this is quite definitely my overall favourite track). Return of the Regiment by Emile Grimshaw, is a very nice little march with a clever inclusion of a few bars of When Johnny Comes Marching Home to add to the interest. Beat as You Go, again from Emile Grimshaw, Morleytown (Joe Morley), conjures images of the Wild West (or perhaps the wild Deep South, as this track has been renamed from a deeply politically incorrect title). Rondo by R L Weaver, is another very difficult piece. It's hard to imagine that a banjo can sound like a harp, but here it is!

 

The material is a feast for string players and their devotees.

What's Afoot

 

It might seem surprising that a label called Veteran Records which specialises in releasing recordings that live up its name has released a recording of a young [ish!] banjo player. However this CD joins the other Veteran release of Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice [who also appear here] as being of a musician who has grown up in one of the most traditional musical environments in England - Dartmoor and has all of his life been immersed in that scene. Rob Murch plays the five string banjo and this recording introduced me to the repertoire of the English Classical banjo of which Rob is a fine player - this is a sparse style of playing which some would say reminds them of end of the pier entertainments - and is light years away from the frenetic American bluegrass style.

 

The CD notes are very informative on the history of the music and the tracks offer 7 solo banjo pieces, 2 as a banjo trio, with Mike Redman and Anthony Peabody, 4 with Mark and Jason as well as a banjo, harmonica track with Bill Murch and an archive recording of Rob with his mentor Tom Barrribell. Rob's playing is stunning - in other reviews it has been called "joyful" and I must agree - the CD starts off with Rugby Parade which shows that the essence of Classic banjo is timing with it's punch chords following a clear melody line. The tracks with Mark and Jason, for example The Bluebell Polka are, as one would expect, more in the English folk tradition showing the skilful chordal use of the banjo - I was lucky enough to see this line-up at Sidmouth last year and as a three piece they are a great dance band. Rob still performs with the Dartmoor Pixie Band. I am sure that this CD is already a standard on the Classic banjo scene - it deserves to become one on the folk circuit as it is both highly entertaining and a true link with a continuous tradition.

Shreds & Patches

 

Here's a CD that'll bring a smile to your face I'll guarantee! Even if you don't normally like banjos... Rob is a true original, and one of the few musicians to gain acclaim from two distinct musical camps - banjo enthusiasts and traditional folkies. This is undoubtedly because, as one reviewer said recently, "the banjo is a very happy instrument in his firm hands" : Rob plays the five-string banjo, an instrument associated most frequently with American bluegrass, yet his repertoire is "as English as it comes". Its two parallel strands encompass traditional country dance tunes and classic banjo pieces from the days of minstrelsy (recalling Clifford Essex and his Pierrot Banjo Team). These pieces are all played with true panache, using Rob's own personal brand of fingerstyle, which he developed from the tuition of his teacher (the late Tom Barriball of Launceston), adding his own unique rhythmic interpolations. Rob began his performing career at an early age with the Dartmoor Pixie Band (where he'd first encountered Tom, in fact), there also meeting up with Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice, with whom he still performs as a trio.

 

This wholly delightful CD was, I assume, recorded relatively recently (aside from the final track, which the sleeve lists as originating from 1985). Just seven of its 16 tracks are true solos; Rob's accompanied by fellow banjoists Mike Readman and Anthony Peabody on three tracks, by Tom Barriball himself on the closing selection (The Park Crescent March), by his father Bill on mouth-organ on the vibrant Cock Of The North set, while Mark and Jason can be heard squeezing away energetically on a further three tracks. Incidentally, those 60s folkies amongst you will be interested to find here scintillating versions of those two banjo cuts played solo by Clive Palmer on the very first Incredible String Band LP - Schaeffer's Jig and Niggertown (renamed Morleytown by Rob, presumably in a bout of political correctness, after its composer, turn-of-the-century banjoist Joe Morley). And did you know that Jimmy Shand's famous Bluebell Polka was originally titled Little Pet Polka?!... This is but one nugget to be found in the mine of information contained in the excellent booklet notes (informativeness isn't normally a feature of instrumental albums, I find!).

Folk Roundabout

 

Since I know nothing of the technicalities of the banjo, my comments about "Still Fretting" might seem to drive it into the category of "interesting, but an acquired taste", and that would be my failing not the record’s. Having listened to the music, however, I can honestly place this high up the list of recent Veteran favourites.

 

Rob springs from the Dartmoor Devon and Cornwall tradition that has been a feature of many of the recent Veteran releases. His technical skill is obvious, even to a musical illiterate such as I. But this is not just a "technically excellent" album. It is really good fun. There is a number of familiar tunes to tap or hum along to – "Tavern in the Town" for instance – and there are others which just demand listening to. I was particularly attracted by "Schaeffer’s Jig" and "Queen of the Burlesque" ( but that is just to give examples, not highlights). I would say I preferred the tracks on which the banjo is joined by other instruments, but, as I said, I know nothing of the technicalities … . I really enjoyed the whole thing.

Mardles

 

What's this? Manna from Heaven? Must be - it's actually a CD of 5string banjo music! But hang on a minute - this bloke's no ordinary banjo player. He's not playing the usual frantic 'bluegrass' style popularised by Earl Scruggs (or as Alan Lomax described it - "folk music in overdrive"). Nor is he playing the other oft heard 'Irish' style of banjo associated with the Dubliners' Barney McKenna. The fact is that Rob Murch, although a gifted banjoist, is something of an anachronism. Let me explain: Rob is an exponent of a once popular way of playing the banjo called Classical style (or finger-style or guitar style) which was developed in the 1860s. The popularity of the Classical banjo could cope better with the volume needed for this new music. Nowadays there is only a small group of individuals devoted to playing and, preserving this highly sophisticated style.

 

Like 'bluegrass' players, the Classical banjoist used the thumb and first two fingers of his picking hand but without the metal fingerpicks essential to bluegrass playing. (According to one chap in the Guardian some years ago, while writing an article on a well known English banjoist called Tarrant Bailey Junior, the banjo sounded like someone "tap dancing of a corrugated iron roof wearing spiked boots". But we should dismiss this ignorant and offensive remark despite its element of truth...)

 

Rob Murch has been playing the banjo since he was eleven years old and started by playing traditional tunes sitting in with the Dartmoor Pixie Band while all the time developing the Classical style of playing. This CD features a number of traditional sets with Rob being accompanied by musicians Mark Bazeley and Jason Rice on melodeon and accordion respectively. However, it is when Rob delves into the Classical banjo repertoire that he really comes into his own. Although essentially an American instrument, a lot of tunes Rob plays were composed by early 20th century English players such as Joe Morely, Oily Oakley and Emile Grimshaw. Many of these tunes are virtuoso pieces and include titles such as Rugby Parade, Zarana, Return of the Regiment. As some of the titles suggest, the tunes are quite often in the two-step military-type march tempo. There is a fair selection of tune types here however and we are also treated to jigs, reels, waltzes and schottisches. On a couple of tracks Rob is accompanied by other banjoists including a cello banjoist!, to recreate the once popular banjo ensemble sound. (Banjo bands/orchestras were common at one time. I can remember as a youngster seeing the Belfast Banjo Band which featured the whole banjo family - tenor, 5-string, cello, bass and even contra-bass banjo!).

 

This is an extremely enjoyable and important recording full of top-notch playing with a wide variety of music.

Lancashire Wakes


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