Tom Azarian

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Barre Montpelier Times Argus, VT Dec 30 2005

Tom Azarian continues to harken to a soulful tradition December 30, 2005

By Mark Greenberg Arts Correspondent


`Tom Banjo,' Tom Azarian, self-released, is currently available at Buch Spieler, in Montpelier and in Burlington at Pure Pop and Borders.

First, a confession: I've been a Tom Azarian fan since I first heard him bang out a banjo tune and let loose with an ear-popping Hank Williams yodel many years ago, back when he was farming with oxen in Cabot and hosting all-night parties that featured lots of home-made music-making by folks from throughout New England.

Azarian is originally from Massachusetts and of Armenian heritage. Yet his Southern-based music has always been the real deal - a mixture of keening Appalachian laments, wild banjo romps, and lonesome blues. Azarian plays them all with soulful gusto, following his inner metronome as well as his rambling muse. There's nothing slick or homogenized about a Tom Azarian performance. Yet beneath his steadfast homespun-ness lie considerable musical skills.

Azarian now performs mostly in Burlington with occasional trips to Texas. Every few years he brings out another low-budget recording. The latest is the self-released, eponymously titled "Tom Banjo." (The sobriquet appears in a David Grisman-Jerry Garcia song that Azarian believes was inspired by his 1960s picking encounters with then-aspiring mandolinist Grisman.)

Abetted on several tracks by his son Tim and former Cabot neighbor Rich Sicely, scion of one of central Vermont's long-time country music clans, Azarian serves up a collection of mostly traditional songs and tunes and a seven-and-a-half-minute excerpt from the "soundtrack" of his latest "cranky" show. Handmade, like all of Azarian's art, this pre-electronic form of moving pictures consists of a hand-cranked roll of "folk drawings," accompanied by live music.

Azarian's current cranky show is a celebration of the life and work of Aunt Molly Jackson - Kentucky union organizer, midwife, song-singer and maker, and fun-and-Hell raiser. Scenes from the cranky show grace the hand-lettered CD booklet. Azarian's cartoon-like artwork is as direct, unadorned, and genuine as his music.

Although his steadfastly lo-fi recordings have never provided the most flattering medium for Azarian's in-the-moment performances, the latest CD, recorded in Austin, Texas, is a sonic step up. Devoid of fancy arrangements, the recording also displays Azarian's ability to draw on tradition while making the music his own. The result is genuine, organic American folk music- as far from the commercially palatable outpourings of singer-songwriters and pyrotechnical bluegrass whizzes as possible and unaffected by the current tastes and trends of mass entertainment and media.

As on Azarian's previous CD, 2002's "One Meatball," the tracks on "Tom Banjo" range from the rough-and-not-quite-ready to the truly distinctive. "The Glendy Burke" and "Goin' Down the Road" display some ragged ensemble playing, and "Ghost Riders (in the Sky)," has a hard time staying on the trail.

But Azarian's solo adaptation of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man," with its plaintive vocal over a simple 12-string guitar accompaniment, reaches straight into the heart of loneliness. Azarian shuffles the lyrics on Williams' classic "Lonesome Whipporwill (sic)" ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") but strikes the same doleful note.

Several ballads contribute to the CD's high points. The historic tale, "The Texas Rangers," sports both a compelling vocal and an effective banjo arrangement that fits none of the conventional picking categories, while "Henry Lee" receives a solid string band treatment.

Azarian reaches back to the British roots of Appalachian music with solo performances of "The Death of Queen Jane" and "Lady Isabelle and the Knight." Each hits a few road bumps but succeeds on the strength of Azarian's singing and tasteful accompaniments on 12-string guitar and banjo, respectively.

Both "Ground Hog" and "The Story of Aunt Molly Jackson" feature the mountain banjo playing that earned Azarian his nickname. The tongue-challenging "Ground Hog," displays Azarian's old-time two-finger picking prowess (and a strange moment of banjo silence). On the modal "Aunt Molly," Azarian's banjo is joined by Joe Cleary's droning fiddle as Banjo Tom effectively tells the tale of the 1931 Harlan County strike that sparked Jackson's militancy. Hard-hitting yet free of sloganeering, this is musical political storytelling in the best tradition of Woody Guthrie, whose unpredictable performances also bear kinship with Azarian's.

"Captain of the Town," provides the one departure from tradition-based material. Written by Azarian's son Ethan, and performed by a group of his Austin pals, the country-folk-style song introduces drums and electric instruments into the CD's aural landscape. It's laudable of the elder Azarian to share the spotlight with his kids and to want his listeners to recognize the kinship between older and newer musical styles, but the track sticks out like a dune buggy in a go-cart race and is the CD's major miscalculation.

Still, that willingness to take risks is part of Azarian's charm. You can experience it in person on Jan. 16 starting at 9:30 pm when Tom Banjo and whoever else shows up perform at an album release party at Radio Bean, in Burlington.

Tom Azarian now has his own website, where you can sample some tracks from 3 of his CD releases, and watch his "Cranky Show" in action!

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