al-scorch-scrollerMusicians love making jokes about each other; we’ve all heard the drummer jokes. Another old chestnut was the line about parking next to the banjo player’s Porsche. OK, they might not be driving Barbie-magnets yet, but, with the rise of Americana, the banjo’s regaining a lot of credibility. Personally. I’d rather hear a banjo than a ukulele any day of the week. In the hands of a maestro like Chicagoan Al Scorch, the banjo takes on a whole new character. It transforms from the kid that no-one would pick for the football team to a menacing, sneering, leather-jacketed Brando in “On the Waterfront”.

But, before I get too carried away with Al Scorch, what about some context? I was visiting Songwriters’ Night at The famous Troubadour in Earl’s Court with an element of trepidation. On my last visit eight months ago, most of the audience talked non-stop throughout the evening, drowning out some very good but quiet singer-songwriters. No such problems this time; as soon as the performers walked on stage, every conversation stopped.

First on stage was Freja Frances (or just Freja) who played a set of delicate, almost fragile, but ethereal, introspective piano-backed ballads. A few nerves, maybe, but belief in the strength of the material pulled her through, helped by respectful silence from the audience. You can hear two of the songs she played on the night, “Papercuts” and “Porcelain Doll” on Soundcloud; they’re well worth hearing.

Miles Horn ramped up the tempo and the volume a few notches with electric guitar backing (plus a couple of songs at the piano) as he ran through a set of melodic and introspective songs starting with “The Great Abyss”. His voice is strong (although he admitted that the falsetto in “Why Don’t You Love Me” was a bit misjudged) and combined with his interesting guitar style and original melodies hints at Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (never a bad thing in my opinion). He’s very assured on stage and, apart from the one mistake with a new song (which he predicted in advance), the set was spot-on, creating a rapport with the audience and giving some background to the songs. Have a listen to “Something Beautiful” and “Slow Motion” here.

Al Scorch and fiddle player Jess McIntosh were something else. They’d brought along a strong following from earlier in their UK tour, but they could have generated audience participation in a mortuary. They’re both very fine players who bring a very punk approach and huge amounts of energy to traditional instruments, creating a buzz from the opening of “Pennsylvania Turnpike” to the close of the set, which was based mainly around Al’s superb new album “Circle Round the Signs”, featuring “Lonesome Low”, “City Lullaby”, “Lost at Sea”, “Everybody Out”, “Insomnia” and “City Lullaby” plus a few others including the poignant “Two Flags” and the crowd favourite “Little Dog”. Both players are lively, but Al is a one-man whirlwind, stomping around the stage, stamping his feet in time and shouting out his declamatory and inflammatory lyrics. By the end of the set, following a banjo and fiddle version of the extended live rock song ending, the performers were running with sweat and the audience wasn’t so far behind them. This was the last gig of the tour, but watch out for them next time around.

circle-round-the-signs-scrollerIt’s hard to think of a point in my lifetime when the banjo was ever seen as fashionable and its reputation hasn’t been helped by John Boorman’s product placement in “Deliverance”; even the ukulele’s a lot more socially acceptable. You don’t find twenty people playing an ensemble banjo version of “Bad Moon Rising” in basements of London pubs (I was only going to the toilet and now I have that horrible, indelible memory to haunt me). Anyway, what I’m saying is that the banjo’s become the guitar’s weirdo cousin that no-one invites to parties, which is a bit unfair. Have a listen to Al Scorch, and you might realise that our little five-stringed friend isn’t such a weirdo after all.

Al’s from Chicago, he’s a tremendous banjo player /singer/songwriter and his second album “Circle Round the Signs” might just change your preconceptions. The banjo playing takes centre stage on the album, but it’s not just about banging out five hundred notes a minute. His style has a bit of a punk attitude at times, but the slower “Poverty Draft” and “Lonesome Low” (imagine “Harvest”-era Neil Young with a banjo) are great songs that offer a contrast to the fast and furious opener “Pennsylvania Turnpike” and the harmonica-fuelled Woody Guthrie cover “Slipknot”. As an even greater contrast, the lovely midtempo “City Lullaby” evokes theme tunes from seventies American TV shows.

Ten tracks, heaps of inventive arrangements (including a couple that feature French horn) and some deft dynamic shifts; “Circle Round the Signs” is out now on Bloodshot Records (BS 241).

If you want to see Al live (and you really should), he’s currently touring the UK and his remaining dates are:

Friday September 9                                       The Square & Compass, Worth Matravers

Saturday September 10                                Dacorum Folkfest, Hemel Hempstead

Tuesday September 13                                 Major Tom’s Social, Harrogate

Wednesday September 14                           Harry’s Bar, Wakefield

Thursday September 15                                Heaton Perk, Newcastle upon Tyne

Saturday September 17                                The Grove Inn, Leeds

Sunday September 18                                   The Grapes, Stranraer

Monday September 19                                 The Cock Inn, Sarratt, Herts

Tuesday September 20                                 The Troubadour, Earl’s Court, London