Ed Helms on His Bluegrass Supergroup and Banjo-Plucking Skills
The star of ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘The Office,’ and ‘The Hangover’ is also a helluva banjo player. He opens up about rocking the stage at Bonnaroo and his debut album.
“Don’t you worry your pretty strip-ed head we’re gonna get you back to Tyson and your cozy tiger bed. And then we’re gonna find our best friend Doug and then we’re gonna give him a best friend hug.”
An unsuspecting public was first treated to Daily Show vet Ed Helms’ musical chops in the Hollywood blockbuster The Hangover with “Stu’s Song,” an ivory-tickling ballad that was improvised by Helms on the spot. Then came NBC’s The Office, which saw Helms’ oddball Andy display his deftness with the banjo.
Well, it turns out the actor and comedian can really play the banjo. He’s quite good at it, too. From joining Mumford & Sons during Saturday’s headlining performance on the main stage of this year’s Bonnaroo, to playing a set with his band The Lonesome Trio, to co-curating the Bluegrass SuperJam, the actor had ample opportunity to prove his musical chops at the recent Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. As far as banjo-playing comedians go, he’s this generation’s Steve Martin.
Helms is such a massive fan of bluegrass music that he co-created a mini music festival called the “Bluegrass Situation” to promote roots music. For the third year in a row, he and the BGS have curated Bonnaroo’s “Bluegrass SuperJam,” bringing some of the best acts in bluegrass together on one stage. Naturally, kicking off this year’s event was his band The Lonesome Trio, featuring Helms on banjo, bassist Ian Riggs, and mandolinist Jacob Tilove. Essentially, their self-titled debut album—that came out June 16—has been 20 years in the making.
The three met at Oberlin College in the early ‘90s and have been creating music together ever since. While their personal lives and careers have taken them in very separate directions, music has always been the tie that binds them together. Their sound blends acoustic, folk, bluegrass, and even a bit of forlorn country music. But it’s essentially an album built on friendship. “We’ve always fantasized about an album, and we were kind of thinking we’d just put something together for our families,” Helms told The Daily Beast. “Some of our music friends really nudged us along and said, ‘Hey! You guys write some decent tunes…. maybe get real?’ I think that sort of galvanized us and got us excited, so here we are.”
Some of those so-called “music friends” are the members of the Punch Brothers, who also showed up to play with the trio during last Sunday’s SuperJam set. In an effort to push them even further, the Punch Brothers recorded “Whiskey Drink”—a song written by Helms—and handed it to him on a mixtape to get the point across. “I was so surprised by that; it was just really cool. That was definitely part of the process and what made us think that yes, these songs are really pretty cool. After that, we decided we needed to release an album,” said Helms.
Retreating to a studio in Asheville, North Carolina, the band worked long hours for two weeks straight to finish recording. But it wasn’t all work and no play. “We imported fun into the studio! Studios have a runner to go and grab stuff for you while you’re focused on recording, and we had our runner constantly getting coffee and beer,” said Tilove. “And whiskey!” added Helms.
Though these songs have been mainly shared with friends and family over the years, The Lonesome Trio hasn’t stayed totally under the radar for the past two decades. They’ve played gigs in Cambodia, performed shows in Bangkok for the entire The Hangover 2 crew during filming, and even jammed for lucky listeners on the Colorado River basin with homemade instruments. “We were rafting down the river, and Ian obviously couldn’t bring a bass, so he made a washtub bass out of driftwood, a piece of rope, and a washtub. That was super fun,” said Helms.
Collectively though, some of their favorite performances have been during Bonnaroo’s infamous and special SuperJam session over the past three years. “What I like about the jam is that really, the rehearsing just happens during the day of the show, when everyone’s sort of gathering together and the set is getting finalized,” Helms said. “Everyone in bluegrass really knows the same songs and just wants to jam, so it’s always organic and exciting. To rehearse too much would be to really take out some of what you play bluegrass for, which is improvisation and all the spontaneous stuff,” added Tilove.
Few Bonnaroo traditions are as beloved as SuperJam, wherein a diverse array of A-list musicians unites onstage for a one-time performance. The possibilities are endless. Previous iterations have seen everyone from R. Kelly to Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones pop in for some collaborative craziness, bringing lucky festivalgoers a show the likes of which will never be seen again.
Highlights of this year’s Bluegrass Jam included a blues-infused cover of Cars’ “Just What I Needed” by the Punch Brothers, a take on “Down in the River to Pray” by Abigail Washburn and Sarah Jarosz, and guest performances by Shakey Graves, Béla Fleck, and the legendary Jerry Douglas. Bringing everyone on stage, they ended the night all together with a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”
And in addition to this year’s third annual Bluegrass Jam was an ‘80s-themed “Throwback SuperJam Dance Party.” Over the past couple of years, Bonnaroo has splintered off of it’s ubiquitous one-jam performance into two thematically and genre-oriented sessions. Apart from bringing amazing musicians together on one stage to create live music experiences that simply can’t be replicated, the intricate (and weird) unifying thread this year was that both sets included stars of The Hangover.
Kicking off the rave-style dance party on Saturday night, amidst an eclectic and packed crowd of frat boys, hippies, and fourty-somethings, was none other than comedian Zach Galifianakis. “Hey guys, who has the WiFi password?” he asked the surprised, unwashed masses of people, while running onstage. Quickly joining him was Mad Men star Jon Hamm yelling, “Yeah, SuperJam!” After showing up earlier in the day to perform a surprise comedy act, Hamm and Galifianakis decided to lend their vocals to the SuperJam stage, sing their own rendition of “We Are The World.”
While Sunday’s jam was a celebration of roots music, Saturday’s set was a tribute to beloved ‘80s and ‘90s dance tracks that was curated by American electronic artist Pretty Lights. Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo showed up, as did actor Corey Feldman, who appeared onstage decked out in a glitter-adorned jacket to sing “Eye of the Tiger.” Other guest appearances included Jack Antonoff, Jamie Lidell, Brian Coogan, Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Karl Denson, Reggie Watts, Eric Krasno, and Rhiannon Giddens.
Once again, Bonnaroo, with the help of Helms, proved there’s truly no place like SuperJam.