Salovey Gets A 4-Finger Presidential Salute

Paul Bass PhotoInauguration weekend for New Haven’s top CEO ended with a community-wide block party—highlighted by a return visit from the CEO’s former bluegrass bandmate, who has pioneered a new way of playing the banjo.

The block party took place on Hillhouse Avenue Sunday afternoon, heralding the inauguration of new Yale President Peter Salovey.

Gregory Liszt was the special guest. Liszt began using four fingers of his right hand on the banjo back when he was a Yale undergraduate, playing for a band called the Professors of Bluegrass. That was more than a decade ago. He went on to a successful career on the alt-bluegrass circuit.

The bass player for Professors of Bluegrass was, and still is, Peter Salovey. Yale and New Haven celebrated Salovey’s inauguration this weekend with a series of parties. (You can watch Salvoey’s inaugural address by fast-forwarding the video at left to 1:15:00. Click here for an account of the official Woolsey Hall inauguration by the Register’s Jim Shelton.)

Salovey invited Liszt back to perform at the inauguration block party. Liszt brought his busy new band, The Deadly Gentlemen, a five-piece acoustic line-up (including the son of mandolin icon David Grisman).

From a stage set up on at the intersection of Sachem Street, at the foot of Science Hill, the band greeted Salovey and a parade of robed Yale worthies who marched up Hillhouse Avenue from the inauguration itself.

People filled the blocked-off streets to eat free kettllecorn and apples and fried dough ...

... or to pose with a larger-than-life Yale bullodg.

Liszt’s relatiionship with Salovey reflects the new president’s comfort with and interest in undergraduates. As well as two men’s love of bluegrass.

Liszt had just arrived on campus from Charlottesville, Virginia, as a freshman when he saw a photo of Salovey in the Yale Daily News along with a notice seeking a new banjo player for Salovey’s band, Professors of Bluegrass. (Click here for a story about the group.) Liszt was the only banjo player who answered the notice. He got the gig. He ended up playing with the group through to his graduation in 1999.

During that time he experimented with using four fingers on his right hand, rather than the traditional three, to pluck notes. He found it enabled him to add some “new tricks” to playing the instrument. It also broadened the range. (Click on the video at the top of the story to watch him play with his new band at the inauguration block party.)

Liszt left Yale to earn a PhD from MIT in molecular biology—then went on tour with Bruce Springsteen. He became best known as the high-energy banjo player for a cutting-edge alt-bluegrass band of the Aughts called Crooked Still, an ensemble including classically trained musicians who added oomph, novel interpretations, and cello (!) to not just bluegrass standards but American songbook favorites ranging from The Golden Vanity to Paul Simon’s American Tune, all fronted by the haunting vocals of Aoife O’Donovan.

Crooked Still released its last of five albums in 2011, then broke up a year later. Liszt has since formed The Deadly Gentlemen, five very alive young men playing original songs on “bluegrass instruments”—mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass, and fiddle. The group has a new album out on the Rounder label.

The music sounds a bit less fresh than Crooked Still’s music does to ears accustomed to the “newgrass” pop-rock trend of recent decades. While maybe not as original sounding, the music borrows ingredients from a wide selection of musical traditions.

The band’s influences range from country to hip-hop to punk, all of which seeped into Sunday afternoon’s performance. Still, the music retained a bluegrass feel. It had the crowd—including Salovey and Yale First Lady Marta Moret—dancing in the street.

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