Tom Azarian, a.k.a. Tom Banjo , has been kicking around Burlington's musical community for decades. Affably gruff and indubitably experienced, he's among the few local pickers who stuck with old-time music well past the 1960s folk revival. In addition to being a seasoned player, he's a living piece of rock 'n' roll trivia. According to Azarian -- and, as the legend has it, mandolin maestro David Grisman -- he's the same "Tom Banjo" immortalized in "Mountains of the Moon," a cut from the Grateful Dead's 1968 classic Aoxomoxoa.
Azarian fires up the time tunnel on his latest 14-song release, depositing the listener in a land of pre-latte coffeehouses and Sunday afternoon hootenannies. The disc's old-fashioned, lo-fi character is enhanced by the presence of an authentic string band. Tom's progeny Tim Azarian and sidekick Rich Sicely accompany him throughout the recording, resulting in some powerful, if well-worn, country music. Ace Chittenden county fiddler Joe Cleary even pops by to lend a hand.
The disc sounds like an ancient field recording of an anonymous urban string band performing in some West Village folk club. Azarian's high lonesome vocals are constantly at the edge of a yodel, and his idiosyncratic Pete Seeger/Bob Gibson-style banjo playing suits the material's vintage vibe. Hank Williams classics, Appalachian murder ballads and Stephen Foster tunes run alongside originals that sound suitably antique.
In addition to being a fine banjo player and singer, Azarian is also a talented artist, as evidenced by the "folk drawings" that accompany the disc's liner notes. Perhaps some of these drawings will be on display when Tom Banjo performs at at one of his favorite haunts, Burlington's Radio Bean, on Friday, January 20. Ryan Power and Joe Cleary join him for the celebration. Pass that jug.