Halloween, to me, is the start of the holiday season and while Christmas brings about the spirit of giving and Thanksgiving, well, the spirit of thankfulness, Halloween seems to be the creative holiday. Some might argue, and I wouldn’t fault them, that the candy spirit is alive and well. As for my circle of friends back in the day, however, candy wasn’t off the plate, but designing that perfect Paul Pfeiffer/Marilyn Manson conspiracy theory costume was penultimate. There’s just something about this ghoulish day that brings out creativity in us all each year. 2020 is no different and perhaps has allowed for more time in our days to soar higher than we’ve ever flown.
Quite frankly, there’s very few musicians in my world that are more creative than that of Matt Menefee, aka MATT, TheBanjoPlayer. Matt’s level of musicianship doesn’t come along but once in a generation. He first spread his wings within his inaugural progressive bluegrass band, Cadillac Sky. Matt wowed listeners with his virtuosic prowess on the group’s 3 critically acclaimed albums. Upon their parting, he toured with the likes of Mumford and Sons, Warren Haynes, and John Cowan. Youtube saw the rise of The Hit Points which was Matt’s love of acoustic instruments and video game music colliding. Most recently, we’ve had the privilege of hearing Matt team up with his C-SKy bestie Bryan Simpson for their original take on bluegrass, The Golden Age. Alongside their debut, “I’m Sure It’ll Be Fine”, released at the beginning of this bizarre year, Matt has been busy in the studio recording his own banjo-defined album and parallel offerings.
Which, ultimately, brings us to yesterday when MATT, TheBanjoPlayer, knocked upon our digital door and shouted ‘TRICK OR TREAT’ from the other side. Two songs, one original, one a cover. Oh and fantastic album art with Matt donning a Werewolf head while bearing both his banjo and a chainsaw. It’s an epic sight. If I were a kid again, I’d blow it up and hang it right between my Kathy Ireland and Nolan Ryan posters. Epic. I was blown away with the creativity before even strapping on a pair of headphones. I chose a TREAT to start which was a cover of that Tears For Fears’ classic “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”. The nothing-but-banjo track begins with a deep groove that would surely get your daddy’s ’83 Blazer stuck with no tow strap in sight. The drum beat kicks in and drives you even further down. It’s a sound you might expect from the late, great Avicii. A banjo meets beats tango that doesn’t feel out of place or forced. It works. It really works. The performance is incredibly patient. A little more than half way through ‘Everybody’, Matt begins to make his baby talk with lovely harmonics – it’s a peaceful ride down the digital stream….and then comes the waterfall. It reminds me of a Reddit I recently came across commenting on a specific performance of Matt’s. It was from a newcomer to the instrument that innocently asked “How many years do I need to practice until I get this good?” The response to the novice from his banjo peers was essentially to give up now. This level of harsh advice is based upon what happens at around the 2:50 mark. Matt takes us on an adventure that, like any good rollercoaster, I fretted would soon run out of track. And just like any good treat, Matt’s TREAT, was devoured and I was left wanting more.
The TRICK, however, was that MATT, TheBanjoPlayer, knew we’d be jonesing for more so he gave us his original 80s window down banjo electronica “My Life As A Vapor”. Remembering that all of this track, minus the drum beat, is banjo simply causes any musician to smile and then give an exhausted laugh as to say “I’m not worthy”. It’s an expression that Matt has seen many, many times in his life and will continue to if he persists with the creativity set forth in both this TRICK or TREAT holiday greeting. The low-hanging fruit for any reviewer would be to say both of these tunes are a treat but Matt and I both know that what he’s doing on “Vapor” will be too scary for many Scruggs’ fans. But just as Bela Fleck ventured into and succeeded at jazz fusion with the Flecktones, MATT is a visionary. In the future, he’ll be the name that young banjo boys and girls reference in their liner notes as their outlying influence. The name that pushed them to go beyond the norm of the day. And to me, that’s one hell of a Trick. Happy Halloween neighbors!