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Canal Street String Band. Photo: Bill Gamble
Canal Street String Band. Photo: Bill Gamble

Preview: Canal Street String Band

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The Canal Street String Band features three musicians, 55 strings, and music spanning a couple of centuries. This Buffalo-based group will be playing three shows here in the North Country beginning this weekend. Joel Hurd spoke to band member Dave Ruch..

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Joel Hurd: "Fifty-five strings?" you might ask. Well, let’s count them up. The Canal Street String Band travels with two guitars, a bass, a dobro, a fiddle, two mandolins, an octave mandolin, and a banjo. Dave Ruch plays four of those nine instruments, and he stopped by the station to talk about the group. The first question: Where’s Canal Street?

Dave Ruch: Canal Street was in downtown Buffalo. Buffalo is a place where the western terminus of the Erie Canal would meet up with the Great Lakes. During most of the 19th century most of downtown Buffalo, where the wharf and waterfront met with the Lake Erie, was a place that was teeming with maritime sailors from the Great Lakes, canalers, all types of merchants and people who had set up businesses to cater to the sailors. It was a place where the canalers would end their route and they might have a little money in their pocket, and the same with the lake sailors. 

Some of the sailors referred to Canal Street, which was kind of the main drag through Buffalo’s waterfront, as" the wickedest street in the world." And some of these Great Lakes sailors had been to many of the international ports when they were ocean sailors. A place--according to a 19th century newspaper article I read--“A place where vice unbridled ran its course.”

 

DR: Some of our music actually comes right from the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. We also do a wide range of other stuff that doesn’t really have much to do with either of those two things. The emphasis is on great old sort of good time music that we don’t get to hear much anymore.

JH: How old is old? How old are a lot of these songs?

DR: A lot of the things we do are from the 19th century. Sea chantys, cowboy songs, and old frontier stories set to music. A few of the things we do go back several hundred years, and we’ve also composed a bunch of music ourselves, so some of it is 21st century as well. It’s all played in a string band format that’s evocative of earlier times, I would say.

JH: Where do you find the old tunes? Are these songs you’ve known for a long time, or did you, when you started this band a couple years back, did you have to do some research?

DR: It was definitely the latter. A few of the songs I had known for years, but I hadn’t had the right group to play them with. A lot of the stuff we’re doing has come about because of the band. Once we got the band together I was sort of actively looking for material, and the other guys have brought a lot of great stuff, too--looking for material that would fit the band. We do some old swing stuff with three-part vocal harmonies, we do some western Texas swing, Bob Wills style music, we do some hot fiddle tunes. Phil Banasak, the fiddle player, is a New York State fiddle champion, and not only a great composer of fiddle music, but he also plays the old-time fiddle tunes really well. I guess we draw from a lot of different places, but it’s all music that’s really fun.

I play most of the time by myself. I’m a solo artist most of the time. This is all music that’s a lot more fun to play with other people.

JH: You mentioned Phil, but there’s one more person in the band. Who’s that?

DR: There is one more. His name is Jim Whitford. He plays the string bass and he’s also playing some dobro and guitar in the band. Jim is one of those guys who plays in about eight or ten different bands locally in Buffalo. He’s everybody’s favorite side man or musician to have on their projects. His background is roots rock n’ roll, and the blues and country music. He sings some Hank Williams and does some honky-tonk rock-a-billy type stuff with us. He’s a lot of fun to be with. All three of us love being around each other and we have a great time on stage. That’s at least half the fun.

 

DR: We call it good time music, and that’s pretty much what it is. Not to say we don’t do a few slower things and a few sentimental things, but a lot of the songs we do tend to be up-tempo. We tend to like the goofy material. There is so much great old American music with humor in it. I personally am drawn to those sorts of songs, so we do a fair amount of those. It’s stuff people tap their toes to. There are choruses audiences can join in and sing along to, if they care to. It is music that even if you haven’t heard the song before, it doesn’t sound unfamiliar, either. You know what I mean? It’s American music.

JH: Dave Ruck of the Canal Street String Band. They’re playing Saturday night at 6 pm at P-2's Pub in Tupper Lake, Sunday night at 7 pm at the Norwood Village Green, and Monday evening at 7:30 pm at View in Old Forge. You can learn more about them at www.canalstreetstringband.com.

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