Tao Rodriguez-Seeger fuses music traditions

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)

If you were performing with a bluegrass banjo legend known for his “jaw-dropping solos,” you might be understandably dismayed if you glanced over during your own banjo solo and saw him covering his ears with his hands.

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger had a different reaction.

“I thought, ‘I got him!'” he said, with mischievous glee.

As Pete Seeger’s grandson, Rodriguez-Seeger is in a good position to subvert music traditions, fusing folk with rock, tradition with experimentation. He will show off his unique blend of new and old at a free concert in Hudson Saturday night, part of the city’s Quadricentennial celebration.

“I like AC/DC as much as I like Tommy Jarrell” Rodriguez-Seeger said, referring to the rock band and the folk fiddler and banjo player born in North Carolina in 1901. “I’ve always tried to marry the two styles.”

The heresy that unnerved banjo maestro Tony Trischka was a combination of distortion, delay and a phase-shifter to create a feedback effect, like Jimmy Page on a banjo. Trischka, who was a teacher of Bela Fleck, and Rodriguez-Seeger’s band, the Mammals, were performing at a Februrary 2005 benefit concert headlined by Railroad Earth in Teaneck, N.J., when the younger musician pulled off the electric solo during a performance of the Mammals’ “Railroad Boy.”

After telling the story, Rodriguez-Seeger said he didn’t think he actually upset Trischka, who he has known since he was a teen. “Pushing the sonic boundaries of an instrument is just good fun and Tony knows that,” he said.

The technique isn’t as much of a stretch as it may seem — the banjo’s hollow body acts like an amplifier and “wants to feed back,” if plugged into an electric amp.

Tao said he doesn’t usually try to use electric banjo tricks around Grandpa Pete, but did get some positive feedback from the elder Seeger, who lives in Beacon, about a month ago at the Clearwater Revival festival.

“Half way through [a] song I started singing and yelling into the back of the banjo with some effect pedals switched on,” Rodriguez-Seeger recalled. “He said it sounded like Bach and whale songs. I’m pretty pleased by that.”

Rodriguez-Seeger, 37, was born in Poughkeepsie and spent part of his early childhood in Nicaragua, where his Puerto Rican father made documentaries about the Sandinista revolution. After nine years of speaking Spanish in Nicaragua, he returned to the U.S. and moved in with his maternal grandparents.

“I became a little annoyed at this gringo grandfather of mine singing songs in Spanish pretty badly and I told him so,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. Seeger responded by inviting Rodriguez-Seeger to help him out by singing with him. Their first performance together was in Japan in 1986, for an audience of more than half a million people. They’ve performed together many times since, and Rodgriguez-Seeger is now a full partner in his grandfather’s concerts.

He has performed two big-ticket events with the elder Seeger this year, Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and a celebration of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s 40th anniversary on May 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York City — an event that doubled as a 90th birthday party for Pete.

Performing as part of the Quadricentennial celebration has a special meaning for Rodriguez-Seeger because of his family’s long history of activism on the river.

“My family’s been involved since before I was born in the struggle to clean up this river,” he said. “I’ve been sailing on the Hudson since I was a little kid.”

Despite an enthusiasm for touring that led him to average over 150 gigs a year in a few years with the Mammals, Rodriguez-Seeger, who now lives in Highland, said the concert in Hudson will be a sort of homecoming.

“It’s my home, the Hudson Valley. I’ve moved away, but I always come back.”

When asked if being Pete Seeger’s grandson came with any extra pressure to live up to his family’s legacy, Tao said “No. If anything it makes me feel a little mischievous.”

His grandfather’s musical and life lessons included a philosophy of going his own way, and learning from him gave was the equivalent of a first-rate education. “It’s sort of like going to Harvard,” he said.

Rodriguez-Seeger described his music as “rootsy” and “psychedelic” – “fiddle and banjo tunes in an amped-up, rock ‘n’ roll way.” His free-spirited attitude extends to his plan, or lack of one, for Saturday’s performance. He knows what he’ll open with, and what he’ll close with, but, he said “the middle is a muddle.”

At the inauguration, the cold weather caused Rodriguez-Seeger’s guitar to crack, which he noticed just before the performance. “U2 is playing ‘In the Name of Love,’ and I’m [telling myself], ‘don’t think too much about it.'” After the performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, the new President met the musicians, and signed the cracked guitar: “This land is your land. Barack Obama.”

Rodriguez-Seeger doesn’t have a lot of faith in politicians, calling them “just a bunch of greedy bums, like the rest of us.” But he saw in Obama a more recognizably “human” leader, and it inspired him to try to be a better citizen.

Politics is not a focus of his music, he says, but at the same time, people and politics are linked.

“When you sing about people and their stories, you’re essentially singing about politics.”

He once asked his grandfather how many political songs to include in a concert. Pete Seeger answered “One, as long as its the right one.” Rodriguez-Seeger took that advice to heart. “You can get people thinking,” he said, but “you don’t want to hit people over the head with rhetoric.” His aim, he said, is “party music with a conscience.”

For his grandfather’s birthday, Rodriguez-Seeger said that they managed to achieve a sense of intimacy despite the size of the venue by lowering their volume and encouraging the audience to sing along. “You should hear how loud 18,000 people singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ sounds,” he said.

The weekend after the Hudson show, Rodriguez-Seeger will perform, solo and with his grandfather, at the Newport Folk Festival, where Pete Seeger famously clashed with Bob Dylan in 1965, when Dylan “went electric” during a performance of “Maggie’s Farm.” In interviews since, Pete Seeger has said that he didn’t object to the use of electric amps, but rather the fact that the sound mixing and volume drowned out the song’s lyrics. Rodriguez-Seeger, who called the incident “overblown,” said that he agrees that lyrics are important and that there is such a thing as “too loud,” although his tolerance for loudness is higher than his grandfather’s.

“I think there is and always will be some sort of divide between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘experimentalists’. Maybe the line has become broader and grayer than it’s been in the past,” he said. “I don’t pay much mind if and when I get the occasional complaint. I’m just interested in playing music from the heart and being true to my ear.”

Published by the Daily Freeman