Watching Danny Barnes play the banjo is a sweet, sublime experience. The alt-country veteran — a former Bad Liver and current Dave Matthews associate — possesses an endearing blend of virtuosic skill and experimental eccentricity that, when combined with his soft-spoken style and goofy, ever-present grin, makes for a very mellow but mind-bending kind of show.
Last Thursday at Maverick’s Country Bar and Grill in Bend, Barnes bounced back and forth between his twangy, low-key tunes and extended banjo jams, which he often introduced by singing “let the banjer play,” as if it was its own entity. And in a way, it was. When Barnes would retreat into a long instrumental stretch, he’d back away from the mic, his eyelids would lower, and that grin would creep across his face, as if he was checking out of reality and letting his fingers cast a spell.
The magic wasn’t all in Barnes’ fingers, though. It also came from a small table covered with electrical cords and effects pedals that the man treated like his own personal grown-up toy box. Barnes made heavy use of reverb and delay effects, as well as spacey, ambient noises, and he used some sort of pedal that lowered the pitch of his strings, allowing him to play bass lines, which he would record and then play back on a loop. And he seemed to delight in ending his songs by pushing a button that sent all the recorded loops into reverse (like this) for no apparent reason other than just for fun. Which is a better reason than any other, I guess.
Barnes did several songs from his outstanding 2009 album “Pizza Box,” including the lolling title track, the bumpy clatter of “Miss Misty Swan” (complete with some of the most tolerable scat singing I’ve ever heard), and the cheeky love song “TSA.” The prettiest and best song of the night was also from “Pizza Box,” called “Overdue.” Even in a venue with pool tables across the way and a bar ringed with people, it was one of those show-stopping moments where it seems like everything outside the stage lights fades away.
Barnes also played a few songs from his upcoming album “Rocket,” which he pulled out of the suitcase at the back of the stage to offer to the crowd. (The suitcase had a sweater draped across it, as if Barnes rolled into town and headed straight to Maverick’s, bringing inside everything he had with him.) He also declared himself a “tape freak” and showed off some cassettes he had available for sale, hand-made at his kitchen table. “I found some sparkly paper at the copy shop,” Barnes said, pointing at the cover.
And therein lies the considerable charm of Danny Barnes: Mega-talent, DIY enthusiast, smart businessman, oddball experimentalist, and above all, creator of beautiful music. And now, provider of the most understated great show of 2011 in Central Oregon.
Here are a few videos of the night that showcase all the twangy, pretty and jammy sides that make Danny Barnes so interesting: