This article was sent to us from renowned French banjoist Fred Simon
The other day, when my old friend CC from Nashville asked why I couldn’t hang around, I said “Banjo Bar.” He said “What’s a Banjo Bar?” and I knew I should’ve kept my mouth shut. A Banjo Bar at Fred’s puts a serious smile on your face and gets your feet tapping, but it’s a challenge to describe properly, plus CC wasn’t invited, so lacking an elevator pitch, I just said “I’ll tell you when you’re a little older, Son” grabbed my hat and skedaddled before he grabbed me. But on the long drive over to Fred’s, I tried to figure out how to describe it to CC or anybody else, especially if they’re not invited.
It starts with the place. As you get there late afternoon, you go around the corner from a castle; follow the guys with gig bags over their shoulders down a winding narrow street, kind of shadowy, to a house with light green shutters and a light green door, almost hidden under vines reaching up to the second story. If you get close and squint, you can see the name under the bell: “Fred Simon.” Once inside the main room, the view immediately dazzles as you look out onto the deck, like the bow of a ship headed south over a sea of sunflowers, the far shore being the watershed line of this particular continent, where the propellers of a wind farm spin slowly in the distance. At that point, most of the action will be taking place between the countertop island in the main room – loaded with bottles and glasses and nibbles– and the deck – garnished with gig bags – where a couple of banjos, guitars and a fiddle will be going. Someone will be singing oldies like “You Are my Sunshine” or “Downtown” while others lean on the railing, or relax on chairs, enjoying the good sound. But the concert hasn’t started yet. Far from it! Here at Fred’s, folks customarily greet each other with a song and some picking. This is just the appetizer. Fred’s place has a down-to-earth aspect where first things come first: namely the food. Fred worked in his family’s restaurant in his younger days, and this man knows how to feed his friends – heartily and efficiently – and then kick off the concert on time. But you’ll eat what everybody else does, pretty much extended family style, maybe sitting down at one of the tables, standing by the fireboard, leaning on the countertop or perched on the landing of the hardwood staircase – lined with a dozen stringed instruments – leading up to the studio.
Once folks are fed, no dawdling, Fred coaxes everyone downstairs to the concert level, which merits a description. At the bottom of the stairs the floor space is the same as the main room. On the left (street side), no windows, because the house leans up against a hill, so a couple of stone arches keep the hillside out of the house, and form a backdrop for the stage area. On the right, you’ll find another deck with a pool built into it. You’ve got basically the same view to the south, but by this time, it’ll be dusk and the lights of the wind farm will be blinking on the horizon. Below the deck, a garage opens to another street. So if you get the picture, this house on a hill, between an upper and a lower street, has three levels: concert/pool level, jam session/food & drink level, studio/bedroom level.
Meanwhile back at concert level: around 9 pm, forty or fifty people settle onto chairs, benches, couches and cushions to take in the concert. Of course that dang post in the middle of the room is a little tricky to see around, but as it holds up the rest of the house, folks tolerate it. Anyway this is the Banjo Bar, in a friend’s house, not some fancy-dancy, thousand-seat auditorium. And here, folks share music, and sometimes so many are playing at once that the musicians overlap into the audience area. In this homey, welcoming, relaxed and generous atmosphere everybody chips in to cover the cost of food and drink and to remunerate the performers – all top-notch and literally within arm’s reach of the listeners.
And though all good things must end, the close of the concert simply means the start of the jam session, usually with a migration up to the kitchen level for some refreshment. Now anything can happen, for example in November last year Russ Barenberg was there for the concert, along with his wife Susan Kevra, vocals, and their friend Rachel Bell, accordion. After the concert, up at the kitchen level again, I was sitting in the middle of the main room on a straight back chair facing the deck where Nasser and some others got started on percussion with a North African feel to it – relaxed, but energetic – and feet started to tap. Flap got the stand-up bass thumping just behind my left ear; Rachel was seated to the right of me and felt inspired to fire up the accordion; Susan brought out a clarinet from somewhere and bluesed a B-flat from it that floated over my head and latched onto my ear whiskers; Patrick started clacking the spoons just in front of me and my feet were a-jiggle. Then Fred went to picking his banjo just to my left. My feet felt like tapping, but there was no point, as my chair was keeping the beat all on its own, and I just hung on and found myself surrounded by a jam session. It must’ve been Remy’s fiddle that tipped the balance, because that music just lifted me and the chair about three inches off the floor. Fred noticed me hovering, and picked up the tempo. Everyone followed, raising the chair another foot, and they all kept me bouncing and airborne for about twelve minutes, before they let me land. Then Susan got a contra dance going and started calling out the figures for a sure enough shindig.
That evening’s Banjo Bar, like many others, continued until the predawn brought a hint of color back to the surrounding fields. Neighbors wandered home, while visitors from afar bedded down right there at Fred’s. And of course, some Banjo Bars are followed by master classes with, for example Russ did one the next day.
So I guess I can tell CC all that about the Banjo Bar, plus Nasser Soltani’s comment that for him it’s playing at a professional level, but with the feeling of being at home, close to an audience made up of friends. Now old CC just has to meet Fred and get an invite.
THE CONCERTS – Fred has organized 35 Banjo Bars since 2010. In every concert, Fred is sure to play, either in the first thirty-minute session, along with friends from his groups Camel Ride and Joey’s Band or other opening acts. Or, thanks to his versatility, he may play with the headliner in the second session, usually lasting about ninety minutes. Themes range from bluegrass to modern jazz, from time-tested oldies to original compositions, in an international context, with musicians such as Russ Barenberg from the US, Lluis Gomez from Spain, Papa Banjo Redon from France, Ben Somers and the Absentees from the UK, and Nasser Soltani from Marseille. Fred’s often joined by his good friends Bernard Minari on mandolin, and the Portalès brothers: Daniel on mandolin and Patrick on guitar.
TOM NECHVILLE & FRED SIMON – Fred had tried out one of Tom’s acoustic banjos thanks to Papa Banjo Redon, and liked the fret board. Fred then contacted Tom via the web, and ended up ordering a Nechville Cosmos Electric Midi banjo. During a European tour, Tom brought the banjo to Fred. They stayed in contact, and met again in 2014 at the La Roche Bluegrass festival in the Alps. At Tom’s stand, Fred’s demos drew crowds, so Tom invited him to do the same at the Telluride and Bean Blossom festivals this year. So if you haven’t been invited to a Banjo Bar yet, but you happen to be at the festival, here’s a chance to meet Fred and hear his music and Tom Nechville’s banjos. In the meantime, check him out on the web.
– Tim-Billy Bow, May 2015