Rogue 2022 review: For Keith Alessi, a banjo becomes a symbol of the healing power of music

A banjo, the lean and kindly man tells us, draws a line to the past – back to circles of players whiling away pre-electric evenings in the Blue Ridge Mountains, back to the vestigial sound of bagpipes urging Scotsmen across a battlefield, back even to primeval times, with people sitting around campfires and vocalizing with grunts and hums. A banjo might not be “fancy,” but it is soulful.

And that soul is what gives Keith Alessi’s superb Rogue Festival show, titled “Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjo Saved My Life,” so much impact. I’ve seen many, many one-person autobiographical shows over 20 years of Rogues, and this is one of the best: funny, inspiring, touching, and infused with gentle warmth.

Alessi combines a rags-to-riches story – as the son of an Italian immigrant father growing up in Canada, his family could rarely afford meat – with a musically infused, gracefully told tale of overcoming adversity. The result is a homespun, easy-going, twangy tale that manages to be both rustically heartfelt and crisply literate.

After working his way through college and up through the ranks of accounting into the rarefied world of corporate boardrooms, Alessi became a big-time CEO. He chucked that all for a gentler, more fulfilling life that included learning to play the banjo. But a very bad medical diagnosis of esophageal cancer changed things. The strength of his show, beyond his amiable delivery and sharp direction, is the writing. Alessi ties together themes of rediscovery, rebirth, and appreciation of life in the here and now.

Most of us aren’t going to have our stomachs relocated during intensive surgery or learn to play the banjo well enough to keep a fringe-festival audience entertained. But we can all connect to the spiritual, healing power of music. It comes from all those years around the campfire. If I worked for Modern Accounting magazine, I’d headline my review: “The columns add up: This show is a hit.” (5:30 p.m. March 10, 8 pm. March 11, Dianna’s Studio of Dance). [Rogue program]

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    I love this summary. My goal is to be sure I see it! Thank you, Donald

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thanks again for your review, Donald. I did get to see this show, and I just loved it. What a lovely way for me to end Rogue 2022. It was so good to have Rogue back. Thanks again for letting me contribute my thoughts. And as always, thanks for keeping us up to date on what’s happening and what we might expect


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