Banjo player Danny Barnes performs Saturday at Dusty Strings, in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.
Musically inclined and reared in Central Texas, Danny Barnes listened to his fill of bluegrass, country and blues.
So in his restless 1970s youth, Barnes’ curiosity turned to — what else? — punk rock. He studied audio production in college and from that experience adopted an interest in noise and electronic music.
Now he incorporates all of it in the music he performs, despite the fact his instrument happens to be the banjo.
“I just thought that [playing the banjo] was the coolest thing I could do,” said Barnes, whose early heroes included Johnny Cash, Leon Redbone, Merle Haggard and Taj Mahal. “I didn’t realize the socioeconomic ramifications of the choice I made; I was only 10 years old.”
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As a banjo player, he was not destined to become a rock star, though he’s shared the stage with a few. And he’s never been an off-the-shelf banjo player. Barnes will perform solo Saturday night in the showroom of the Dusty Strings music store in Fremont, playing music from his “Folktronics” music project, in which he fuses audio technology with folk music to create an electronically enhanced version of his brand of folk rock. In the process, he strips the banjo of its “associations with hay bales, wagon wheels and overalls,” he said.
“I’m interested in found sounds and audio as art,” said Barnes, who lives near Port Townsend. “The friends on my speed dial are in punk-rock bands. They’re avant-garde musicians, they’re in hard-rock bands. Those are the type of people who come over to my house for sandwiches.”
The performance space at Dusty Strings, which sells guitars, mandolins, banjos, hammered dulcimers and harps, is unique. The stage is built into a corner of the showroom, where its handmade harps are displayed. For shows, the merchandise is cleared out and replaced with about 100 folding chairs. The underground store — one level below Fremont Avenue outside — creates a sort of womb of sound for the acoustic musicians who perform regularly. The guitars hung on the walls, said concerts coordinator Adam Burdick, absorb the sound of the performance and vibrate sympathetically.
The electronic enhancements Barnes employs sets his performance apart.
“He has always been ahead of his time,” said Miller McNay, a mandolin player who works at Dusty Strings and once opened for Barnes at the Tractor Tavern. Barnes tends to invent music, McNay said, before there is an audience for it.
He also has an almost scientific appreciation for his instrument, describing it in amplitudes and energy, graphs and parameters. Barnes’ unique sound and ability have made him a sought-after sideman. He has played with jazz musicians such as Bill Frisell and rock bands such as the Dave Matthews Band, with whom he will play next month in Matthews’ hometown of Charlottesville, Va.
His instrument’s appeal — and therefore his appeal — he said, is to be so unobtrusive that he almost cannot be heard. But take him away and his absence is nearly deafening.
“It’s like if you shine a light on a stage, you can’t see it but if you pump some smoke in, you can see it,” Barnes said. “It gives the music structure you can relate to, like a color palette in a movie.”
Hugo Kugiya: firstname.lastname@example.org