SUNPARLOUR PLAYERS with the BARMITZVAH BROTHERS and ANDY MAGOFFIN at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), Wednesday (October 4). $5. 416-923-8127. Rating: NNNNN
The fact that a lot of non-traditional bands working outside of the old-time music realm are using banjo these days means it doesn't seem like such a weird anomaly. Yet it's still a bit unusual to see the Sunparlour Players' Andrew Penner plucking away at one over the thumping beats provided by his childhood pal Mark Schachowskoy against the backdrop of a 21st-century metropolis.
Like many young musicians clawing the banjo today, Penner grew up slashing away at a guitar in heavy rock bands and would've laughed off any suggestion that he'd eventually not only grow to love the hardcore country music he used to hate hearing his parents listen to at home but also end up performing it with great enthusiasm.
It sure beats shining shoes at the Royal York, which is what Penner does as his day job.
"Growing up on a tomato farm outside of Leamington, Ontario," recalls Penner, "my dad liked to play country and bluegrass stuff especially the Stanley Brothers and I couldn't stand the sound of the banjo as a kid. But a couple of years ago I found this old Sears-catalogue banjo in the basement of my wife's mother's house that had probably been collecting dust since the late 60s.
"So I picked it up and tuned it, and the sound was strangely appealing. It's like all that music my father had been playing at home had seeped into my skin and became a part of me, because I really enjoy it now.
"And people who come to our shows seem to appreciate the sound of the banjo in what we do. Maybe that's because we tend not to use it in a traditional way, like old-time music groups would. I like to think that the music we're making as the Sunparlour Players has a modern twist to it."
The songs on their new self-released disc, Hymns For The Happy, certainly come in odd shapes and roll with an off-kilter chug that suggests a contemporary inspiration, but their lyrics about creeks, bells, rivers and robbers could've been written at any time since Confederation, involving simple constructs and no references to modern life, let alone sex or drugs.
"That never really occurred to me," chuckles Penner after a long pause. "It definitely wasn't part of our concept for the album to leave out any mention of modern living, but now that I think about the songs on Hymns For The Happy, I guess you're right.
"When Mark and I started discussing what we wanted to do, we already had two songs written that were both about where we're from. It just seemed natural to come up with a few more with that same idea for an album. I guess living in a big city like Toronto caused us both to think about the rural experiences of our childhood in Mennonite families."
Suddenly the mystery of the Sunparlour Players is solved. The fact that both Penner and Schachowskoy grew up in Mennonite households definitely helps explain the earthy slant of their subject matter, and songs like Pacifist's Anthem make a lot more sense. But Penner is quick to point out that he did enjoy the benefits of electricity and zippers.
"My parents were about as progressive as you could get and still be considered part of the Mennonite community, which is pretty big in the Leamington area. We had all the modern appliances, including a turntable, unlike some families who didn't use electricity or others who paint their car bumpers black because they feel the chrome is too ostentatious.
"We actually just played our first show for a Mennonite audience at the Leamington Marina, and our opening act was a local Mennonite choir in which my mom and Mark's dad are members. That was so cool! About 300 people showed up for the Sunday afternoon concert, and while I can't say for sure if everyone in the place was a Mennonite, it looked like everybody had a good time."