Not everyone picks up an instrument as four-year-old and spends most of their childhood and adolescence honing their skills to eventually become a virtuoso. Some people don’t come to music until later in their life. Such is the case with both Brad and Ken Kolodner, a father-son old-timey folk duo who performed in Harper Hall on April 3 as part of the conservatory’s World Music Series.
Ken Kolodner graduated from Lawrence in 1976 with majors in Psychology and Sociology. He went on to a get a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. It was in graduate school that Kolodner decided he was going to teach himself to play the fiddle by listening to recordings, despite never having played a musical instrument before. Eventually he learned to play the hammered dulcimer and is now one of the best players in the country. Although Kolodner has mainly earned his income by performing since graduating from Johns Hopkins, he still consults in public health and has published many articles. Kolodner epitomizes the liberal arts ideal of multidisciplinary interest and excellence.
What makes the story of Kolodner’s musical journey even more singular is the other half of the duo, the other Kolodner: his son Brad. Beginning a family tradition, Brad didn’t pick up an instrument until later in life either. He went to the summer music camp where his dad was teaching to “hang out with the other kids” and do other normal summer camp activities, but he ended up discovering a passion for the banjo when the pennywhistle class was full. Now Brad is an up-and-coming, award-winning musician and composer. He specializes in the clawhammer banjo, whose soft, gentle sound he says is less “obnoxious” than the bluegrass banjo.
The father-son relationship of the duo creates a very special, intimate concert atmosphere and synergistic musicianship. The two seemed perfectly in tune while playing, standing very close together and often catching each other’s eyes. In fact, the performance felt more like a gathering of friends than a formal concert. The two frequently teased each other between songs; when Brad needed to tune before starting a song, Ken commented, “My instrument has 90 strings, and he needs to tune.” Later, Brad quipped that he didn’t pick an instrument with 90 strings because when you do have to tune, you’re there for hours upon hours.
The hammered dulcimer is a very old instrument of possible Persian origins with a sound somewhat similar to a harp. It lends an underlying driving yet delicate rhythm to the traditional music, making for a very engaging and pleasant listening experience. The “old-time” music that the Kolodners play is the precursor to bluegrass. Many of the songs are centuries old and developed from African and Celtic influences (the banjo itself originated in Africa).
I definitely had a wonderful time at the concert, along with everyone else, but I will admit that sometimes the songs began to run together, with all of the rhythms and melodies sounding very much alike. An “Involuntary String Band” added some spice and vitality in the second half of the concert, featuring Lawrence students Davey Harrison (mandolin), Martha O’Donnell (fiddle), Ilan Blanck (guitar), and Nick Allen (double bass). They turned the concert into a bit of a party, having lots of fun while simultaneously making really good music. Brad, Ken and the string band concluded with an encore of “Arkansas Traveler,” leaving a very satisfied audience. The concert was a great success for all involved. Hopefully Ken will come back with Brad to visit his alma mater again sometime soon.