“Beautiful and wild, there are no boundaries here. Something I have never heard before.” Jerry Douglas “I was utterly blown away by these guys. Exquisite musicianship. My gig of the year.” Ralph McTell
Damien O’Kane is regularly seen playing banjo & guitar alongside his wife Kate Rusby in her acclaimed band. Similarly, Ron Block is the ever-present stalwart of US country superstar Alison Krauss’s band..
Now, we’re all used to the colloquial phrase “Brother from another mother,” but when Ron Block’s wife, Sandra, met Damien’s Mum, Colette, she was moved to go one step further and exclaim, “No honey, they’re brothers from the SAME mother,” so alike did she find the two men in character.
No wonder, then, that when Ron came to Rusby HQ to play on the album “20 in 2012”, they found plenty in common, from playing the banjo, to a grounding in their own traditions of music, to the craic of enjoying a beverage or three in each other’s fine company.
“We should make a banjo album together,” they agreed almost straightaway. And then promptly succeeded in not doing so for another two years.
‘I really like this project a lot. It’s incredibly well played and recorded, nice surprises with the guests!! Anyone that likes Irish and American roots music will love this record.’; Ricky Skaggs
They eventually made Banjophony and released it in 2018. It began as a single track, recorded in 2014, and remained a one-track record until Ron came to the UK to tour with Sierra Hull in 2016.
Ron and Sierra stayed at Pure Studios during the Underneath The Stars Festival, enabling them to create five tracks from scratch and record them live during two highly productive days. It gave them the core of songs and the momentum they needed to finish off what became a “joyous” experience and a “bucket list thing” for both men when they met in early 2018 to complete the masterpiece.
Take two people who know their scenes inside-out, put them in a studio and add a heady dose of bromance, and you get a crossover of Irish banjo and bluegrass banjo that has never quite been offered before.
Just when cultures were feeling rather divided globally, Damien and Ron gave us something between distraction and hope. They gripped us firmly by the lapels and yelled the wondrous phrase, “Let’s talk about banjos.”
Deliverance puns aside, a bit of their unity and outright sense of fun didn’t go amiss in delivering us from the potential misery of that particular year.
‘Banjophonics is an inspirational album composed with sonic and cultural influences from both sides of the Atlantic , forging a new and innovative sound. The 4 & 5 string banjos of Damien and Ron, a unique and beautiful combination, are exquisitely played on this pristine recording. The energy, groove and technique on Banjophonics will inspire musicians of any genre and bring joy to all music lovers’– Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor.
When you look at their backgrounds, they’ve followed similar trajectories. Both began playing at a young age, immersed in their local scenes: Ron in Southern California and Damien in Coleraine, Northern Ireland.
They’ve both played fundamental roles in bands. Ron’s big gig came in 1991, when he joined the mighty force of Alison Krauss’ band, for whom Grammy and Bluegrass Awards have rained down plentifully over the years. Damien played with Irish/Anglo supergroup Flook among others, before joining Kate Rusby’s band in 2008 (before exchanging wedding bands in 2010).
Damien has also been nominated twice at BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and hailed by none other than Jo Whiley as a ‘sonic architect.’ So, what is the appeal of a duet that’s basically one bloke from someone else’s band and another bloke from someone else’s band playing some music together?
That’s an easy one: essentially, there’s a whole lotta banjo!
Banjos are often more than noticeable in the mix of a full band’s sound, fast-fingered and fuel for the fleet-footed. Sometimes a banjo even gets a solo. But with Damien and Ron, it’s more like ‘banjo squared’ in their output than the mere addition of one banjo to another.
There’s a heapin helpin of mutual respect, particularly for Ron’s eloquence and for Damien’s improvisational flair. More than anything, there’s that oneness, which comes across both on stage and on record. It’s something about being brothers – from some mother or other.
“I challenge banjo non-believers not to be moved by this transatlantic banjo union.” – Lynette Fay, BBC Radio Ulster
Damien and Ron started working on their new record Banjophonics in April 2019. They recorded a bunch of tracks and met up again at Pure Studios to record more in November 2019 after a tour in the UK. The men had planned to finish the record in April 2020 but a certain pandemic got in the way! They release Banjophonics on July 1st, 2022. A real treat for banjo lovers worldwide, they will tour the UK and Ireland in the summer and autumn, with full band, to showcase another masterclass on tenor and bluegrass banjos and how their respective traditions meet and unite in perfect and thrilling harmony.
‘I really like this project a lot. It’s incredibly well played and recorded, nice surprises with the guests!! Anyone that likes Irish and American roots music will love this record.’ – Ricky Skaggs
The full band is: Ron Block on banjo, guitar and vocals. Damien O’Kane on tenor banjo, tenor guitar and vocals. Duncan Lyall on double bass and moog. Ali Hutton on guitar and stomp
Doors Open and Licensed Bar from 7.00pm. The Show starts at 7.30pm