When: Sat., Jan. 11, 8 p.m. 2014
Hank Smith has made his career exploring the reach of the banjo. The Raleigh musician trends toward tradition with the Kickin Grass Band, but he bucks it altogether with the folk-soul renegades The Morning After. Years ago, he'd stretch his five strings into psychedelic solos with jammy newgrass adventurers Barefoot Manner. His quest to put the banjo in new situations has followed one consistent lodestar: Béla Fleck. This weekend, he'll debut Blu-Bop, his tribute to Fleck's genre-corroding work with The Flecktones. The band's been in rehearsals for months, but in many ways, Smith's spent most of his life preparing for this dexterity challenge.
"The inspiration for doing this project comes from an absolute love for the music and how it's helped shape what I want to do with the banjo," Smith explains. "The Flecktones, for me, are the ultimate expression of how far you can take [the banjo] and retain all the musicality afforded to the instrument."
True to The Flecktones' improvisational form, Smith and company will use the band's bluegrass and jazz fusion numbers to launch into their own explorations. His band should have the skills necessary. Smith enlisted his Morning After bandmates Mike Rosado and Lindsey Tims to provide drums and mandolin/guitar, respectively. Saxophonist Myron Koch occasionally joined Barefoot Manner. Jeanne Jolly bassist E. Scott Warren, The Mantras' keyboardist Justin Powell and Climb Jacob's Ladder's harmonica player Paul Messinger round out the band.
And they've earned the only endorsement that might matter: Smith met Fleck at a private hotel room concert during last year's IBMA festival in Raleigh. Fleck already knew of the project and was "absolutely supportive and very encouraging." He's even considered Smith's offer of a free flight and hotel room to see the tribute's premiere. Maybe Smith will even let him sit in? —Spencer Griffith