Calling Nathan Bowles a solo banjo player never felt quite right. With the string-band-drone-giants Pelt, for instance, he might squeeze and key a harmonium, wrangle an arsenal of auxiliary percussion bits, or perhaps bow some strings. In his youth, he was a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, a position he’s now comfortably returned to with Steve Gunn‘s folk-rock band. And though he plays the banjo in the old-time greats Black Twig Pickers, he learned the instrument only after joining with but a washboard to beat.
But his wonderful one-man, one-instrument debut, 2012′s A Bottle, A Buckeye, left listeners little choice but that reductive tag. On those 11 tracks, Bowles painted modest portraits with only his five strings; his mix of slow meditations and spry melodies felt like a catalog of images and ideas, captured in the solitude of a single all-night recording session.
His second LP, Nansemond, speaks more directly to Bowles’ fragmented focus by combining the experimental with the folkloric. On “J.H. for M.P,” where he trades verses and licks with fiddler and tenor Steve Kruger, he takes the tale of ol’ John Henry for a gutbucket ride. And he howls and stretches the Biblical lyrics of “Jonah” like he’s trying to convert the Saturday-night tavern mob, not preach to the Sunday morning pew-crowders. “Chuckatuck,” a duet with the Tom Carter, rises from mannered pastoral reflection to psychedelic lift-off, Carter’s acid-squeal guitar stretched over Bowles’ genteel trot.
Bowles does indulge the solo, sans-vocal banjo for three tracks, but each flirts with webs of
abstruse effects and electronic interference while stretching past or toward the 10-minute mark. If A Bottle, A Buckeye was a sequence of simple snapshots, Nansemond is where Bowles chips at a clear picture until it begins to break into abstraction.
Nansemond is an important progression for Bowles, a confident step beyond the elementary though endearing exercises of A Bottle, A Buckeye. But some of the additions, like the heavy blues tag of “Golden Floaters/Hog Jank,” feel like just that — tacked-on attempts to shake a solo-banjo cast before it can set. Still, in an honest compendium of his assorted past, Bowles delivers intriguing possibilities in a field that can seem stiff or subservient. Nansemond should make it harder still to call him a solo banjo player.