Banjoists and fiddlers to play old-time music in Berkeley

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention will take place mostly at Freight & Salvage. It opens Thursday with a triple bill including Jody Stecher, Kate Brislin and Jake Blount.

Jake Blount, a Steve Martin banjo prizewinner and a rising force in the African American movement reclaiming old-time music, performs at Freight & Salvage Thursday as part of the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention. Credit: Michelle Lotker

Suzy Thompson likes riddles, brain teasers and puzzles. Sudoku, the New York Times crossword puzzle, whatever — she’s ready to settle in and work out a solution.

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention
Sept. 23-26

It turns out that the mental agility she’s honed over the years has been especially handy as she figures out the schedule for this year’s Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which runs Sept. 23-26 both in person around Berkeley and online. For every live performance, class or workshop, she’s included a backup plan so the event can proceed come pandemic surge or conflagration.

“Putting this all together this year has been a real challenge,” said Thompson, a binding force in the Bay Area roots music scene known for her multi-instrumental prowess in various blues, old time, and Cajun music ensembles. “So many moving targets! I’ve made contingency plans, then made contingency plans for the contingency plans! Fortunately I love doing logic problems, so I am just approaching this as if it was one of those kind of puzzles. That keeps it fun and prevents me from freaking out.”

The concerts take place mostly at Freight & Salvage, the convention’s only indoor venue, and open Thursday with a triple bill including Bay Area favorites Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, and Jake Blount, a recipient of the Steve Martin banjo prize and a rising force in the African American movement reclaiming old-time music. The Slate Mountain Ramblers, a celebrated fiddle convention band from Virginia making their Bay Area debut, round out the program.


The Ramblers are led by fiddler Richard Bowman, “who grew up down the road from Tommy Jarrell and learned from him,” Thompson said, referring to the legendary Appalachian fiddler featured in the Les Blank and Maureen Gosling documentaries Sprout Wings and Fly (1983) and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1995).

“What’s so unusual is that his playing is untouched by modern old-time fiddling. He holds his fiddle way down on his chest this very old fashioned way and he plays 20th-century fiddle music. And because the music comes from where he comes from, it’s not put on in any sense, just natural.”

Friday’s triple bill features Oakland banjo player, vocalist and clogger extraordinaire Evie Ladin and her band, and Horsenecks, a husband and wife duo from Portland, Oregon. The headliner is powerhouse old-time Virginia fiddler and vocalist Eddie Bond, a 2018 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s top honor for a folk artist. His band brings the headlong momentum of bluegrass to their old-time music.

Tickets are available to attend the Freight shows in person or via livestreams, but many of the convention’s signature events are free, like the String Band Contest in Civic Center Park. With a guest set by Cajun fiddler David Greely, best known for his work with the Louisiana band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, the competition starts at 11 a.m. Saturday and runs until the defeated haul away the last bag of rutabaga. Greely also hosts an online Cajun dance party Saturday night backed by Suzy, Eric and Allegra Thompson.  Workshops take place in backyards around the city, with location information supplied after registration.

“We’re not having as many jams as we used to, but we’re still doing some in a backyard in South Berkeley,” Thompson said. “We’re going to have jamming at the contest at Civic Center Park, but we’re not doing the big jam session in front of Freight or anything that causes passersby to congregate. But there’s a lot going on, and I’m so happy to have so much of it be in person. One of the whole points of this music is the social aspect.”

Masks and proof of vaccination is required for most convention activities.

Lisa B, the Oakland poet and jazz-steeped vocalist, celebrates her birthday Saturday afternoon with an outdoor performance at The Back Room. She is presenting a musical retrospective with songs drawn from across her seven albums, backed by a superlative combo featuring pianist Frank Martin, bassist Fred Randolph and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte (with additional keyboards by Ben Flint). She may do her pandemic-inspired song “Don’t Touch Your Face,” but it’s a safe bet her set will include some of her early work when she was deeply inspired by Digable Planets. An inveterately inventive singer who has long sought to merge spoken word passages and hip hop into jazz contexts, she can also turn a Hebrew melody into a jazz vehicle.

“I’m choosing some stuff I haven’t done much recently,” she said. “I’m also looking at songs with an eye toward coming out of the pandemic, like ‘I Remember Paradise,’ which we’re doing as a samba, and starts ‘I release you/Go and make your life.’”