Daily Planet are one of the most well-known bands on the British bluegrass scene. Since their formation in the mid-90s they have gigged all over the world including a performance at Telluride, and collaborated with some of the genre’s most famous names such as Tim O’Brien and Matt Flinner. This month, Daily Planet – Live, the first Daily Planet album in nearly ten years, is released. We spoke to banjo player Leon Hunt about the band, the new recording and his solo work.
Almost a decade has passed since Daily Planet released their last album, The Big Scoop, and the band have played relatively few gigs in that time. In fact, they might have fallen entirely off the bluegrass radar were it not for the high profile of Britain’s foremost banjo player, Leon Hunt. Leon has maintained a strong presence on the scene with his own solo CD Miles Apart as well as collaborations with the likes of David Grier and Growling Old Men. So what happened to Daily Planet?
“We played fairly tirelessly for a couple of years after The Big Scoop,” says Leon. “I think we notched up something like 14 festivals one year, but when it came to do another album we just didn’t have he energy for it. I went off and did a degree and a few theatre jobs and various gigs in various guises and the rest of the band individually became equally busy away from The Planet.”
The bluegrass scene has itself evolved somewhat since then. New bands and festivals have popped up, and there’s a fresh new young interest in the music. However, despite having laid low for some time, Daily Planet still sound contemporary and remain very relevant. They play the sort of music that it’s difficult to listen to without thinking to yourself “that’s not bluegrass”. Closer inspection might suggest that their music is indeed about as unashamedly bluegrass as you get get. Whilst playing Celtic music. In a jazz style. On keyboard, drums and jaws-harp…
Their new album, a recording of an all-too-rare Daily Planet gig in Bath in December 2006, sets out its bluegrass credentials with fiddle and banjo opening up Morning Would, a trademark Hunt instrumental, which the band proceeds to take all over their colourful musical spectrum with accomplished ease. A bluesy Jamie Matthews sung Lost my Mule in Texas follows to keep the audience on its toes, before The Planet do a bit of Celtic spliced with a New England bluegrass standard, if such a thing can exist.
The band has seen various members come and go over the years. The current line-up brings Leon together with Henry Sears on fiddle, Dom Harrison on guitar and bass, drummer Tim Robinson, Mike Cosgrave on keys, and Jamie Matthews on vocals, harmonica and the aforementioned jaws-harp. Not a mandolin in sight.
Leon insists that the band does play bluegrass. “We definitely have our own take on it but I think it still fits,” he says, before opening up the classification somewhat with “it’s traditional music, mostly Celtic, mixed up with improvisational music such as blues and jazz.
“The Rolling Stones played blues music, The Beatles played rock ‘n’ roll and country music, Django Reinhardt played swing. If any of those guys had slavishly copied their American counterparts they probably wouldn’t be the names that roll of the tongue so easily now. I’m in no way comparing Daily Planet to any of those guys…”
Daily Planet music, whatever it may be, is just one strand of Leon’s amazing banjo talents. Recently he’s been doing “everything from playing African stuff for Sekou Kieta’s record to playing the banjo with a Bic biro for Goldfrapp.” Plans to record with Growling Old Men suggest he’ll soon be returning to bluegrass. But like on the new CD where Jamie’s comment “back to bluegrass” leads into a haunting keyboard intro for Clinch Mountain Backstep, nothing is ever that simple.
This album is Daily Planet at their best – uncompromising, unashamedly unclassifiable and “unbluegrass”. It will leave music fans wanting more, and bluegrass purists polishing off their letters of complaint. And you suspect that Daily Planet wouldn’t want it any other way.