With Banjo and Dance, Allison de Groot and Nic Gareiss Chase ‘The Thrill’ of Music
Nic Gareiss and Allison de Groot (photo by Marc-André Thibault)
Virginia old-time multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith once called music “a thrill you just can’t express,” but banjoist Allison de Groot and percussive dancer Nic Gareiss convey something pretty close with their new visual album, The Thrill, out today on Bandcamp.
The Thrill finds de Groot and Gareiss performing six traditional tunes based on Smith’s recordings, a “dialogue with his archive,” as Gareiss describes it, rather than a reproduction. Videos made for each of the album’s tunes show de Groot and Gareiss facing each other in a sunlit studio in Montreal, the wood floor and shelves of instruments along the walls lending warmth to the scene and the sound. Filmmaker Trent Freeman brings viewers in close to the music, zooming in on de Groot’s hands on the banjo and Gareiss’ shoes as they shuffle up dust in the sunlight.
The joy of being together and making music is evident on de Groot’s and Gareiss’ faces in the videos, which were filmed after months of lockdown early in the pandemic.
“The thrill was a thrill of coming together again,” Gareiss says. “A thrill of being in the same space of sharing sound and movement and gesture and time and ideas.”
For each tune, de Groot and Gareiss faced each other as they performed, a departure from the usual audience-facing format of live music (or camera-facing for video).
“As dancers, it’s always very frontal, especially in the way that maybe Appalachian clogging has been put on stages,” Gareiss explains. “It’s oriented toward a spectator that’s directly in front of you as opposed to sharing the gaze or the eye contact with the person who’s actually creating the sound with you.”
De Groot describes herself as “an intense eye contact person” when she plays with other musicians, and on The Thrill she watches Gareiss’ face as well as his feet as the songs unfold.
“When I play with Nic, our live show can be really spontaneous and sometimes I’ll do things that surprise myself in a reaction to what Nic’s doing,” she explains. “It just sparks such a playful kind of conversation back and forth that feels really free.”
The project didn’t start out as an homage to Smith, but both de Groot and Gareiss, who have frequently toured together, kept coming back to his recordings when combing through tunes to perform together. His rhythmic style made for a good fit for banjo and dance, and he made plenty of room for two artists in his versions of the tunes: “It actually kind of feels like it took two of us to make as much music as Hobart makes,” Gareiss says with a laugh.
Smith himself was a dancer, Gareiss points out, and his tapping feet can be heard in many of his recordings. Likewise, Gareiss’ dancing adds not only a visual interpretation for each tune but also a transfixing percussive element, a heartbeat that moves through the music as de Groot’s banjo steers the melody.
Gareiss also adds vocals on two of the album’s songs, including a spoken-word moment of musing on a quote from Smith he and de Groot heard in an archival recording that stuck with them both enough to give the project its title.
“Hobart Smith said he could make a picture out of everything he played, and that music fills you with a thrill that you just can’t express,” Gareiss says while still dancing, his feet calmed to a whispered accompaniment as de Groot continues the joyful melody line on “Last Chance.” “I’ve been thinking about that thrill, if it’s indeed ineffable. Do there have to be pictures? I don’t really see pictures. It’s more like something traversing the space. It’s more like a feeling. I guess that’s what I’m chasing.”
Allison de Groot and Nic Gareiss’ visual album, The Thrill, is available exclusively on Bandcamp starting Oct. 7. Half of the sales for the album will be donated to Lonesome Pine Mutual Aid in Southwest Virginia, the homeland of Hobart Smith.