Urban Banjo

The Washington club scene makes way for the eccentric old-time music of Dave Landreth

From a stool at the end of Tangerine's bar, a banjo player picks a tune. What is he doing here? His right hand flashes with the speed of a Vegas dealer, shuffling, flicking, rapping the strings. His left hand moves across the banjo frets as if telling a story in some lightning sign language. It's a slow Tuesday night: The bartenders and the few customers look over at the musician and listen. The melody moves in a long loop through the room, then charges and careens off the walls. No sound could be more at odds with the Washington strip, where music is most often a means to be seen or get laid, yet no sound could be more rhythmic, more irresistibly danceable.

Over the last few months, Dave Landreth has been bringing his eccentric and profound old-time music to the club district. He may be the main attraction at Tangerine every Tuesday from 10:30-11:30 p.m., but the martini-and-DJ scene is far from the world he usually plays in and even further from his roots. Landreth grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the son of working-class parents, "first generation off the farm," as he puts it. The Midwest is fertile ground for old-time music, but Landreth's earliest interests were hardly old-timey.

"Country music didn't come to me first," he says. "I played in garage-rock bands, more the edgy stuff -- the Animals and the Kinks. My first performances were singing in junior high school. I used to write songs, but I found that wasn't my forte. I really got into making up melodies. I played guitar, Leo Kottke-type stuff. I didn't know what I was doing. No clue. I didn't even know how to tune a guitar properly for I couldn't tell you how many years. I tuned it to what sounded nice and worked with it. I had a little red Spanish guitar that I inherited from my brother. If you put too many strings on it, the neck would bend. I could only put four strings on it."

"There are points in your creative life," he continues, "where you do so much, then you're wallowing around, and then something happens to push you to another level. The deciding point for me was when I was playing this little guitar and I couldn't get it in tune. I had something in my head that I wanted to hear so bad, and I got so frustrated. I was angry. I laid it on the bed, then reached over and smacked it -- not very hard, but I broke it in half. I took it out back and buried it. I pulled out all the frets, every screw. It was a very loving thing. I buried it. I consciously said, 'That's it. I'm never going to play music again.' I was fifteen."

It wasn't the last time Landreth would try to forsake music, but music refused to forsake him. His friends and family chipped in for a twelve-string guitar, and, under the influence of legendary old-time musician Bill Rintz, the young man quickly absorbed the intricate styles of Kottke and John Fahey and then the claw-hammer banjo. "Rintz was playing in a band called Finnegan's Wake, with a banjo player named Tim McKean," Landreth recalls. "I'd never heard a banjo in my life, at least not consciously. He was playing claw-hammer, and I was hypnotized. I went out and bought a banjo for 25 bucks, got the Earl Scruggs book, the fingerpicks. But I couldn't do it. Eventually I went to Tim's house, and he showed me the basic claw-hammer technique. Bill Rintz had started playing fiddle, and we all just bonded. We played together for almost 25 years."

The band the three formed was called the Allen Street String Band, a group that built a following throughout the Midwest, mainly on the contra-dance circuit. Landreth continued to play solo guitar gigs, slowly working the banjo into his repertoire, until he finally gave up the guitar and abandoned the bar scene entirely. Save for Tuesday nights, Landreth now sticks to workshops and dances. He has played with the Volo Bogtrotters and regularly performs with fiddle master Geoff Seitz, guitarist Jim Nelson and the Chicago-based string band Combine. The banjo remains his obsession, even though he rarely listens to other pickers. "After a while I stopped listening to banjo players," Landreth says. "I was playing with some really good fiddlers. I don't know how to explain it, but I developed a knack for catching the essence of the melody and transferring it on to the banjo, keeping enough of the rhythm and the melody to have it all make sense."

Landreth's first solo project, Chairs, captures that adventure in the heat of its truest moments. With the many old-time masters he's played with over the years -- including Seitz, Nelson, Chirps Smith, Jeff Rosen, Pat Egan, Gary Harrison and Marc Rennard -- Landreth combines familiar fiddle tunes such as "Devil in the Haystack" and "Mississippi Sawyer" with bizarre and beautiful originals. On "Mama's Got a Chip on Her Shoulder," his wife, Catherine Cathers, attacks a triangle and chants low in the background as Landreth pushes his banjo past anything recognizable as traditional, and yet the furious percussive sound remains indebted to some inheritance, however off-kilter.

"You have to listen to the chirps and clicks," Landreth says. "It's like an African language. I do subtle things with my hand; I don't care if anybody else hears it. Old-time music is like haiku. There are very confined rules, but you can say what you want. You have to get adventurous with language. These tunes are, like, 32 bars, only so many notes, rarely even a sixteenth note. How can you get the statement across in those confines? You don't mess with the texture or the integrity; you leave that in place. But what can you say within that? I've heard some players disastrously ruin old-time music in the name of adventure. So I lean more to staying true to the music than caring more about the adventure. If you stay true to the tune, you'll have an adventure."

For Landreth, a keeper of the old songs and an inventor of the heretofore unheard, the truest tradition in American music is the breaking of tradition. But he knows you can't break apart what you don't already own: "The beauty of music is where you go with it, without totally losing it. You stay true to the tune but go somewhere. Some of the old fiddlers would take an old standard and gussy it up, make it their own. I used to feel really bad that I would do that with tunes. I would run into purists, and they would say, 'You have to play it straight.' I'd listen and say, 'What is straight?' Every fiddler is playing different. Even two fiddlers getting together aren't playing alike. Nobody is playing alike. Nobody."

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