Bringing their country twang and quick fingers, performers of the New York Banjo Summit will strum their talents on stage Friday at the State Theatre.
The New York Banjo Summit is a reunion tour of the performers from the New York Banjo concert in 2002. Performer Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick said Peter Lesser created this event 10 years ago in Albany to showcase modern banjo artists, and it proved to be a huge hit for both audiences as well as the performers. The overall success got Lesser thinking about the future of New York Banjo.
“Ten years later, the idea of maybe doing a reunion came up, and we invited them back, and everyone readily agreed,” he said.
What had been just a single show of the region’s best of banjo has evolved into a 10-show tour featuring the same performers from the New York Banjo show in 2002, which will be stopping at the State Theatre on Friday.
The tour will include seven banjo players, all of whom have ties to New York. Béla Fleck will be the headliner for the event. The group includes players from the original 2002 concert as well as some new names, such as Mac Benford of Ithaca.
Benford said the content of the tour will consist mainly of banjo performances with a “happy-go-lucky” style of music but will also feature renditions containing jazz and classical components.
Many performers on the tour see it as a chance for the vibrant and rich banjo culture of New York to come together and show the deep relationship between the region and the instrument, Benford said.
“People naturally assume that the banjo is a southern instrument, but look at all these players from New York state who have had such a big influence and impact on the world of banjo playing,” he said.
Hailing from Ithaca, Benford said he has a special connection to city and is a firm believer in the region’s important role in the world of old-time banjo.
“Ithaca for 40 years has been a center of old time music, nationally,” Benford said. “Since the banjo is such an important part of old-time music, you could say that Ithaca is definitely the upstate New York center for old-time banjo.”
Also performing in the summit, Wernick lived in Ithaca for a period of time in the early ’70s while working with the sociology department at Cornell University. Wernick joined musical forces with another performer on the tour, Tony Trischka, as well as the tour’s guitarist Russ Barenberg, in Ithaca to create the group Country Cooking.
“[Country Cooking was] on Rounder Records, which was an important record company in American roots,” Wernick said. “We made a couple of the earliest Rounder records, and we recorded them right in Ithaca.”
Wernick said Ithaca’s history with the banjo did not just stay within the area’s borders. One of Country Cooking’s earliest recordings, “14 Bluegrass Instrumentals,” boosted band members’ fame nationally as well as internationally.
“Ithaca is known far and wide as a hotbed of what’s called old-time music,” he said. “Ithaca is where it all started.”
Wernick said he encourages residents of the Ithaca area to attend the show and familiarize themselves with an important piece of musical culture.
“It’s a big deal for people who aren’t in Ithaca, so Ithaca might as well know something about some of its history,” he said. “Such is for history’s sake, it’s going to be a damn good concert.”
The New York Banjo Summit will take place at 8 p.m. Friday at the State Theatre. Tickets can be purchased on the State Theatre’s website or box office.