Ah the banjo: an instrument both lauded and lampooned. (There’s an old joke about cutting up onions and banjos I don’t want to go into here.) As the five string travels from its bluegrass roots into more psyched spaces-less Appalachians, more Himalayas-its surprising all-purpose versatility becomes apparent. Plucked, the banjo can have a dry, brittle sting, while in full open-string glory can glisten like sun on an endless river.
These options clearly appeal to Uncle Woody Sullender, who explores the instrument thoroughly on “Live at Barkenhoff.” A live recording of three extended songs, Sullender performs with electricity and intelligence, unlocking a full spectrum of sounds with his “electro-acoustic” banjo. And while any “untraditional” banjo improve cannot escape at least a brief comparison to the creative enigma that is Daniel Higgs, Sullender clearly has something unique and inspiring going on.
Opener “A Measure of Dasein” has several distinct sections. Raspy stirrings transition to an electronic buzzing and a pattering of notes which moves to a more traditional banjo improvisation over subtle electronic sounds. Later, the piece rises quickly into a teeming nest of pinging and electricity before relaxing and condensing to a hot glowing point of light.
The electronics Sullender uses throughout the album compliment his work on the banjo nicely. Often droning along in an insectoid counterpoint, the electronics give digital percolation and gyroscopic balance to the compositions. Interestingly, the electronic tones are kept trebly and thin, much like the banjo itself. Accordingly, “Live at Barkenhoff” is often an acidic album, like grapefruit juice into the eyes or something hot and corrosive leaking from old gadgets and gizmos.
The middle track (“Where the Flowers on the River’s Green Margin May Blow”) is sparse, with harmonics, gentle slides, and clearings of quiet melodic lines. “Violence of Volk” lives up to its name as Sullender whips the banjo into a tight knot while bringing melodic feedback up in the mix. It’s a relentless piece, with supreme motion as the organic and the electronic seem to be in a race with each other. Uncle Woody Sullender takes the banjo to an exciting peak and “Live at Barkenhoff” is an improvisational achievement. 8/10 -- Mike Pursley (8 July, 2009)