Banjo ace Tony Trischka brightens winter nights at PS21

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CHATHAM, N.Y. — For the first time in its dozen years, PS21 is awake for the winter with a new year-round performing arts center.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, in the intimate enclosed theater that opens up during the summer, banjo master Tony Trischka will light the season's darkness with "Of A Winter's Night," an evening of Americana music filled with toe-tappin' rhythms.

Accompanying Trischka will be multi-instrumentalist/shape-note singer Tim Eriksen and fiddle playing vocalist Phoebe Hunt, along with Elizabeth LaPrelle (of Anna and Elizabeth fame), who sings and plays claw hammer banjo, bassist Larry Cook and Dominick Leslie on mandolin.

The concert, which Trischka has performed around the Northeast in various forms for 25 years, will feature Christmas and winter-themed songs, both familiar and rarely heard, with a mix of bluegrass and traditional music, old-time shape note singing, carols and "Auld Lang Syne."

He will perform "Christmas is a'Coming" by Leadbelly — "which is really fun," he said in a recent telephone interview — and original compositions written using lyrics he found when Nora Guthrie gave him access to her father Woody's archive. Recently, he set Emily Dickinson poems to music, which he hopes to introduce at PS21.

Trischka, who turns 70 next month, has studied and played banjo for more than a half century, using the finger-picking style popularized by banjo legend Earl Scruggs. At age 14, he heard a banjo solo on a Kingston Trio song, and "it just turned my head around," he recalled.

While his music is rooted in bluegrass, he also plays more modern progressive work, and performs Bach and Beethoven during solo appearances. "I've had a lot of different influences," he said.

A Syracuse native, who has called New Jersey home for the past 30 years, "My heart is always in upstate New York," he said.

He has performed at venues, large and small, from New York City's Joe's Pub to Madison Square Garden. In 1988, he returned to his ancestral roots and played before 30,000 people in then-Czechoslovakia, returning the following year. "Those were two of the best tours I ever did," he said, "there was a very strong bluegrass and banjo presence there."

Trischka has recorded some two dozen albums over the past 45 years. In 2013, he recorded "Of a Winter's Night" at Levon Helms' Woodstock studio as his second holiday CD. His next recording project is a Civil War saga, he said.

In demand as an educator, including at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Trischka's online lessons reach students around the world. "A lot of younger people are playing banjo," he said, "It's a wonderful community, like a family."

This spring, he will lead workshops on a South African "Banjo Safari," then tour the country performing with local musicians.

After playing with numerous bands and forming his own successful group, Skyline, in the 1980s, nowadays Trischka likes to vary his line up of musicians from show to show, often introducing new talent he finds in Boston and New York. "It keeps it really fresh and interesting for me," he said.

It also frees him up for when people like Steve Martin call for his services — he recently performed in Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri as part of Martin's nationwide tour with comedian Martin Short.

Trischka had invited Martin — whom he credits for bringing banjo to a wider audience — to perform on his 2004 Grammy-nominated Double Banjo CD. He went on to produce Martin's acclaimed "Rare Bird Alert" album in 2010, which featured the Dixie Chicks and Paul McCartney. "It was an amazing situation to be in," Trischka said.

PS21 founder Judy Grunberg is delighted Trischka is returning to PS21 as part of the venue's first winter season. He last performed to a packed house in PS21's then open-sided tent theater in the summer of 2013.

"I love Tony, his music and his character," said Grunberg, "He's just one of the best banjo players in this part of the world."

For the holidays, she said, "we wanted an upbeat family event, and this show was exactly what we were looking for."

She promises seasonal refreshments will be available to add festive cheer. "It's cozy and warm in there," she promised. Fans can also pick up Trischka CDs or even banjo socks as holiday gifts.

"I have tremendous confidence in Tony and his musicality," Grunberg added. "Whatever he does is going to be wonderful."


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