If you go

What: Danny Barnes and Nick Forster

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder, 303-443-8696

Cost: $12

More info: etown.org

T he first step to understanding Danny Barnes' music is a quick vocabulary lesson.

"I call it barnyard electronics," Barnes explained. "I'm trying to bring older American forms but I sort of meld them with modern electronics -- sample manipulation and granular synthesis and things like that -- bring it in with the musicianship and poetry of traditional American music."

The second step is some context. Barnes first picked up a banjo at the age of 10. It was the 1970s, and he didn't see too many musicians playing the instrument. He wasn't aware of any "societal judgments" of the banjo and, he said, his home state of Texas wasn't a "fertile crescent" for banjo music. He just liked the way it sounded and was sort of hypnotized by the mechanics of playing.

"One of the things that got me going on it is that when you watch someone play the banjo, it doesn't look like those hand motions would get that sound out of it. It sort of out of sync," he said. "The banjo's kind of weird because the strings are out of order, so visually it's weird. I always feel like a dog looking at a ceiling fan like, 'what is that doing?'"


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Rather than diving into the canon of banjo music, Barnes went with the music that he loved and what inspired him -- specifically, punk rock and noise. He got a degree in audio production while he was listening to The Clash and Iggy Pop, studying avant-garde sound artists like John Cage, and writing for orchestras. Writing for different instruments, he learned that there are limitations, strengths and tricks to each.

Nick Forster.
Nick Forster. ( Picasa )

"I began to realize you can look at the banjo like that ... and you could throw away the hay bales and wagon wheels and use it as a paintbrush or something," Barnes said. "I began to look at the banjo kind of like a pencil after a while, where you're capable of making all these different things with this instrument."

This Saturday at eTown Hall, Barnes will sketch, paint or play music with eTown co-founder, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Nick Forster. Or as they both put it (in case you need another action verb) they'll converse.

"When you find someone with whom you have common interest and a deep vocabulary, you can really have a conversation," Forster said. "We have a little bit of a history of doing this, and typically we'll lean heavily on his songs and we'll do some of my songs. What's cool is when you listen to each other, you'll find these windows of opportunity where something can change and something can evolve in real time. And not a lot of people in my experience are such good listeners."

It seems the feeling is mutual. Barnes had almost the same to say about Forster:

"You play with a lot of people, and a lot of times people play and they just -- they're really good musicians, but they just do their thing, so to speak. But every now and then you get to play with these guys who build things with you right then. There's a conversation going on. They can make things happen right there," Barnes said. "It's really cool because when you get to play with someone like that, this thing happens."

The performance isn't an eTown taping. It'll be Barnes and Forster, having a musical conversation on stage, and really, that's all anyone can predict right now. But even if you can't quite follow the conversation, it's worth seeing for the infectious energy of spontaneous creation.

"(Danny) is a rare musician. He also has so much joy in his playing that it is a kind of youthful sense of discovery," Forster said. "I think it's an interesting thing. What happens on sort of a subtler level with music is it's an exchange of energy between the stage and audience ... An audience may not know what they're responding to, exactly, but they can feel the energy and the pulse."