By R.J. Slately, Dec. 2015
Singer-songwriter and string instrumentalist Andru Bemis recently visited Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first time, to the delight of audiences and the benefit of numerous musical instruments. Bemis—who tours nationally, regularly impressing with his driving clawhammer banjo playing, old-time Irish fiddling, nimble finger-picking on the guitar, humorous and heartfelt songs, and crowd-friendly personality—arrived in mid-October and played several times while in town. His performances included a Friday night gig at the popular Coffee House on Cherry Street, a Wednesday evening service at All Souls Unitarian Church (accompanied during one number by pianist Rick Fortner, the church’s musical director), and a greatly appreciated voluntary show for Methodist Manor retirement community.
Often wearing a hundred-plus-year-old hat, with his much-admired pigtail braids hanging down close to his waist, Bemis brings to mind the skilled traveling musicians of old. He has been compared more than once to Woody Guthrie. Fittingly, in the Guthrie tradition, his banjo displays the handwritten words “Progress and Poverty,” which often sparks an audience member to ask what these words mean; the answer is that Progress and Poverty is the title of Henry George’s highly influential social and economic treatise (praised by Einstein, among others)—a significant book written in the nineteenth century that is, at present, unheard of by many.
Bemis spent some of his Tulsa sightseeing time at the Woody Guthrie Center, the River Parks trails, and the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza along Route 66. He also took an informal tour of Tulsa-based Bishline Acoustic Academy’s reputable shop, where high-quality Bishline banjos are built; while there he tried out two Bishline banjos himself, providing unexpected entertainment for one of the Academy’s owners as well as one of its instrument designers.
Of particular note, Bemis surprised staff members at Tulsa Community College when he arrived unannounced at the Metro Campus and offered to tune and otherwise treat the game room’s growingly infamous upright piano for free, which he did. The newly improved piano was immediately praised by a TCC employee, who said she had previously found its sound displeasing. (The piano’s upkeep had been determined beyond the scope of the college’s budget for 2015).
While in town, Bemis also found time to jam with local musicians, to visit family, to repair and tune a second piano, and to restring a two-hundred-plus-year-old violin (not to mention an electric guitar). Speaking of Tulsa, Bemis declared, “I’ll be coming back.” A CD featuring selections from his Tulsa performances is in the works.