Full Circle: The Solo Banjo Sessions—Bob Webb (music review)

Full Circle: The Solo Banjo Sessions—Bob Webb
Richmond Webb Associates RWA 7405 (2007)

This is an album of banjo tunes both traditional and original (though much more of the former than the latter) by Bob Webb, a man raised up in the folk and bluegrass hothouse of the early and mid-1960s which flourished in Southern California, more particularly in San Diego and its environs. The recording and engineering of these songs is both spare and lean, and David Peloquin (superlative on the recording/engineering boards at Night Sail Studios) and Webb made a conscious decision to make the music “more about energy and emotion than perfection”, ensuring an immediate, intimate reading of all of the tunes on Full Circle. While this choice may not be to every listener’s liking, it comports exactly with my feeling about folk and roots music: it is best served when it retains the vitality that originally brought it to life, which means that it exists in a moment, warts and all, ephemeral and all the more “real” or “honest” for all that. Thus, the production choices made here play right into my admitted prejudices about what folk music “should” be about.

That confession out of the way, Full Circle is really about Webb and his banjos (though there are a couple of guest overdubs of Webb on ringing acoustic guitar), and there are a gracious plenty of them, from fretted five-strings with and without resonator to gut-strung fretless minstrel instruments, to exotic hybrids like the mandoline-banjo. All are deployed by Webb in service to the various styles in which he has presented the program, and all are pretty well executed; in fact, there’s not a bad cut on the disc, though I will point out favorites as we move along. I will also note the brief but wonderful liner notes which Webb has included in the packaging, accessible to the average listener, but technical enough to satisfy the browsing ethnomusicologist.

The disc opens with two standards: “900 Miles” and “Swannanoa Tunnel”, the former in a verse-and-break presentation harkening back to Cisco Houston, and the latter with a rising and falling vocal which fuels the narrative. The first of three Webb originals, “Meggie” (a paen to a friend’s cat), is next, a tune which Webb allows just sort of “fell out of the banjo.” Drop-thumb frailing helps propel “Charleston”, and we are first treated to the treble ringing of the mandoline-banjo on “Coal Creek March”, a song learned by Webb via a version by Art Rosenbaum. A minstrel version of “Diamond Joe” is next, featuring a gut-strung fretless banjo, and it is followed by the stately “Cowboy Waltz”, a dance tune which infuses the refrain from the old tune “Cattle Call”.

The next 12 tunes are the heart of the disc, and feature Webb’s most impressive work. In “East Virginia”, we savor the “high lonesome” of his reaching into tenor-range vocals (Webb’s predominant voice is a rich baritone, but his tenor work is marvelous in the context of mountain ballads such as this), and the original instrumental “Fast Moving Clouds” is airy, light, and as ephemeral as the title might suggest. A saga of love, horses, rival swains, and lion’s dens is next with “Lady of Carlisle”, a tune passed to Webb via his old friend (and sometime duet partner), Curt Bouterse, followed in turn by an up-tempo rendition of the old fiddle tune, “Little Liza Jane”.

One of the highlights of the disc is next, the high lonesome saga of love denied and treacherous women, “Fall on My Knees”, followed by the tale of life on the run, “Policeman”. More love and mayhem is in store with “Wild Bill Jones, a tune passed to Webb via Mike Seeger, and essayed here with more mountain vocals and a fretless banjo by Webb. Courtin’ in the hills presses on with the splendid “Rocky Hill”, which features Webb on an Ozark octagonal fretless banjer built by the aforementioned Bouterse.

My favorite tune on the disc is my favorite for an unanticipated reason. I have for a number of years collected multiple versions of my favorite tunes. One such is “When Johnny Come Down to Hilo”, and in the past, the versions that I have accrued are variations on a slow capstan shanty that is occasionally slowed to nearly a lament. Webb’s take on the tune is entirely different, and after I got used to the up-tempo rendition on a gut-strung banjo in the minstrel style, I found a completely new song, and that is *always* a bonus with good music. Webb’s strong work continues in the medley “Unfortunate Tailor/Sally in the Garden” which moves effortlessly via Webb’s strong baritone reading of the Tailor’s broken love into the up-tempo instrumental finish with “Sally”.

The old Bill and Charlie Monroe tune, “Red Rocking Chair” gets Webb’s high lonesome tenor treatment next (as one might well expect), and my favorite Webb original, the lullabye “Sleepy Margaret” resonates on his delicate mandoline-banjo. The disc closes with a fine fretless reading of “The Cuckoo Bird” (this version via Clarence (Tom) Ashley) and the somewhat relentless closer “Last Chance” an up-tempo tune passed to Webb from Brian Seeger.

ere, then, is Bob Webb’s Full Circle: The Solo Banjo Sessions. It does what good music must: it strongly whets the appetite for more of the same. In so doing, it sends the listener scurrying about for other examples of this corner of musical craft and magic, and it finds at least one new fan waiting somewhat impatiently for more of the same from Mr. Webb and his musical collaborators.

Available in libraries and bookstores
-- Gilbert Head is a writer and avid music appreciator, amongst many other talents. He was born many moons ago, like Misty, in Chincoteague. Since then, many places called home, and many philosophies scarce dreamed of.

An archive of Gilbert's articles is located here.

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