Banjos, magic and laughs on stage in Aspen |

Banjos, magic and laughs on stage in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesMagician Eric Mead, banjoist Peter Mezoian and ventriloquist Ted David, left to right, are featured in Banjo Magic, a benefit event at 7 p.m. Saturday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – Over the last decade or two, with the prominence of Bla Fleck and the rise of string bands inspired as much by the Grateful Dead as by Flatt & Scruggs, listeners have become accustomed to hearing the banjo make sounds other than pure bluegrass.Which still doesn’t really prepare people for what Peter Mezoian does with the instrument. Mezoian, from Maine, plays the four-string banjo, which exists on a different plane than the more popular five-string banjo typically used in bluegrass and its rootsy related genres. Even among banjo enthusiasts, Mezoian often finds himself having to explain just what it is that he does.”I’m still a freak to them,” the 42-year-old said. “They don’t even know the term, ‘plectrum banjo'” – another way of saying a banjo played with a pick, the customary way to play the four-string. “A lot of them are amazed by the chord progressions I do, which is way more chords than they use. But they look at it and say, ‘You don’t belong here. Where does it fit in?'”It was the five-string that initially captivated Mezoian. To be more accurate, it was stand-up comedy that initially attracted him. In his early teens, he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and went to see Steve Martin perform at the Portland Civic Center. Mezoian loved the comedy – he can still do, word-for-word, routines from Martin’s “Let’s Get Small” album – but what truly inspired him were Martin’s musical interludes on the banjo. Knowing nothing about the instrument, Mezoian got a banjo teacher – who taught the four-string version, or one fewer string than Martin played.”I was thinking I would sound like Flatt & Scruggs. But it wasn’t happening,” he said. Eventually, Mezoian realized the problem. But his teacher was good, he got a good grounding in music theory, and he grew to like the style of the four-string.Within time, though, Mezoian also recognized a problem with the instrument: It was stuck in time. Almost all of the music for four-string banjo was grounded in the first 40 years of the 20th century. While Fleck and Tony Trischka were taking the five-string into contemporary jazz, funk and newgrass, four-stringers seemed limited to old swing and Tin Pan Alley material.At the age of 15, on vacation in Arizona, Mezoian caught a glimpse of other possibilities. He met Jerry Allen, the rare adventurous four-string banjoist. Allen not only wandered stylistically and borrowed sound technology from rock ‘n’ roll guitar, but was a storyteller who could build an evening’s entertainment around his instrument.”He was the predecessor for what I do,” Mezoian said.The full range of Mezoian’s artistry will be on display Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. He is featured in Banjo Magic, a variety show of sorts, the proceeds of which go to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The show also features Snowmass Village magician Eric Mead; Aspen ventriloquist Ted Davis acting as host; and Carbondale artist Majid Kahhak, who will do a live, onstage painting of Mezoian.Mezoian, backed by a six-piece band, will take the four-string banjo places it has rarely visited. His repertoire for the evening includes Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, medleys from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oklahoma,” and the classical number “Recuerdos del Alhambre” by Terrega and “Hoedown” by Copland.Over his career, Mezoian has seen a big shift in the perception of the banjo. No longer do people automatically see it solely as a basic and rural instrument. But he does wonder whether that shift applies to him.”I’m hoping that I’m riding on those coattails,” Mezoian, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of banjo history, said. “I see all this going on – and the four-string banjo is never changing, with the same repertoire, same styles. There’s all this stuff going on, but all in five-string banjo.”Is there something I’m missing that the five-string banjo players are doing?”••••Just as the audience will see something new in Mezoian’s approach to four-string banjo, so will they see something different with Eric Mead. Yes, Mead performed several nights a week for years at the old Tower Magic Bar in Snowmass Village, and has moved his operation to the Hotel Jerome’s Library Bar for regular Monday night appearances.But that is bar magic, where Mead performs his sleight-of-hand. Card and coin tricks don’t go over quite so well in a 500-seat theater, so Mead will transform himself for the night into a mentalist – a performer who gives the illusion of psychic powers. Mead will do two 10-minute sets tonight of tricks along the lines of guessing numbers people pick out of phone books.Mead’s career as a mentalist began in 1995, with a broken hand. Unable to do sleight-of-hand, but with dates to fulfill, he developed a different form of magic. About 70 percent of his dates now revolve around mentalism, though most of those performances are private events outside the valley. Tonight’s show is a rare opportunity for local audiences to see him do this brand of magic.”When I do the close-up magic, that cannot be seen by a large audience,” Mead said. “This doesn’t need to be seen at all, and you can understand it perfectly. I can do this for 5,000 people. It’s theater of the mind, basically.”

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