Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Shaftman Performance Hall, Roanoke, VA, 3/7/2014
Banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are known the world over for building bridges across musical and geographical cultures. The pair of singer-songwriters have drawn influences from Appalachia to the Far East, from Earl Scruggs to ancient Chinese culture, reinventing the banjo as much more than an old-time instrument, and as a means of exploring musical directions both innovative and unexpected.
Joined by matrimony, Fleck and Washburn form a musical pairing that’s tough to beat; his virtuosic instrumentalism alongside her resounding vocal range and playing ability. Their duet was peppered with witty banter between songs, giving the audience plenty of laughs – once they collected their jaws from the floor.
Fleck and Washburn decided a means of spending more time together would be to play music together more often, and set out touring with one another to accomplish those plans. The couple shared their passion for the banjo before a sold out crowd at the Shaftman Performance Hall at Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia on Friday night. Fleck’s improvisational blend of folk and bluegrass weaved perfectly through Washburn’s impressive vocal range and banjo-driven melodies, thrilling the audience from the opening through the encore.
After a loud welcoming ovation – during which the proud parents announced the recent arrival of their baby boy Juno – the pair took their places seated amidst a crowd of banjos, taking the crowd on a musical thrill ride that spanned decades and continents.
Both pulled from the array of five-stringed tools of their trade in accompanying the other throughout the evening, starting off with “City of Refuge,” a sweeping Washburn number from her 2011 sophomore solo album of the same name. Fleck took the lead on “New South Africa,”,a melodic tune from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ 1996 effort Live Art, and Washburn’s clawhammer picking kept right up with his rapid-fire banjo rolls.
A master of the three-finger Scruggs-style of banjo playing, Béla Fleck started playing the guitar while growing up in New York City, first hearing the banjo of Earl Scruggs during The Beverly Hillbillies television sitcom. In 1973, at the age of fifteen he received his first banjo from his grandfather, seeking lessons from notable banjoists across the city such as Tony Trischka, before forging a solo career during the 1970s.
His collaborations are well-known throughout the bluegrass and folk worlds. In 1981, Fleck joined up with Sam Bush, Pat Flynn and John Cowan in the progressive bluegrass act New Grass Revival, while also performing as a solo musician. In addition to his work with New Grass Revival, he’s most likely known for helping found the instrumental fusion group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988, joined by the likes of brothers Victor (bass) and Roy “Future Man” Wooten (percussion), Howard Levy (harmonicist) and Jeff Coffin (saxophone). To date, Fleck is a 15-time Grammy Award winner with 30 nominations and widely regarded as the finest banjo player in the world.
A banjo player in the clawhammer style – primarily a rhythmic, down-picking motion – Washburn’s musical talents extend beyond just playing the banjo; her world-class vocals range from a rich, whispery alto to a resonant falsetto. Her musical path began when she gaining a record contract in 2004 after placing second in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest that year. She toured with the female bluegrass act Uncle Earl for five years, and later helping form the Sparrow Quartet, a bluegrass group comprised of Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, and violinist Casey Driessen.
Friday’s performance was Washburn’s first visit to Roanoke, praising the day she and Fleck spent with students during a workshop at the Music Lab, an arts education curriculum within Jefferson Center, also complimenting the acoustics of the performance hall. Fleck is no stranger to the city, performing over the years with the Flecktones or alongside other artists, his most recent visit being March of 2010 with a group of African musicians including Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. To those in the audience who were not familiar with Washburn before Friday night, they soon learned her vocals and harmonies are a perfect match with Fleck’s banjo mastery.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Washburn took up East Asian studies in college, afterwards spending time in China, immersing herself into the language and culture, which has since become a staple of her music as much as her background in old-time music. Based in Nashville, she met Fleck at a square dance, and he went on to produce her first solo album Song of the Traveling Daughter in 2005. Washburn began touring through China in 2004, and displayed her mastery of seamlessly merging plucky American old-time music to harmonious lyrics sang in Mandarin Chinese, drawing loud cheers from the amazed audience after each song, many of whom may not have seen her perform before Friday night.
Between songs, Fleck and Washburn traded stage banter varying between secret handshakes and friendly barbs, light-hearted segues into more reflective tunes, such as Washburn’s “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” For the bluesy “Keys To The Kingdom,” another Washburn number, the two left the stage, stepping into the aisles, Fleck plucking his five-string to Washburn leading the crowd in a sing-along.
After a short break, Fleck perched on a barstool while performing a piece from “The Impostor”, his concerto for banjo and orchestra. Before Washburn rejoined him onstage, he took requests from the audience, before selecting a crowd-pleaser, “The Natural Bridge Suite,” from his 1982 solo album Natural Bridge.
Once Washburn returned, the pair dedicated a song in the Sacred Harp tradition to those who had influenced their music, mentioning the likes of Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger.
Next came a mountain song Washburn learned while in China, translated to “The Sun Has Come Out And Alas We Are So Happy.” In lieu of the overcast skies the area has been under recently, she dedicated the tune “to the weather people, as a begging, a pleading, for more sun.” Following the mountain song was “Burn Thru,” a heartfelt track from “City of Refuge”, filled with Washburn’s heartfelt singing and melodic picking, Fleck adding the right dash of melodies on his banjo.
Fleck picked up the bass banjo – an instrument which he joked he had no idea how to play, drawing laughs from throughout the crowd – for one of Washburn’s bluesy tunes, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” followed by a harmonious Chinese song of Washburn’s, whose title translates to “Good Flower Red”.
As the night flew by, the pair made it clear they were feeling right at home onstage. Washburn even joked about moving to Roanoke, with a disclaimer: “We are horrible neighbors,” she quipped, before adding that she and Fleck “play the banjo late at night and have a crying baby.”
Washburn led the crowd singing harmonies during a rendition of an old-time Appalachian spiritual, “Divine Bell,” which Washburn said was inspired from an original gospel show in the tiny Central Virginia community of Rugby.
Roanoke has long appreciated Fleck’s otherworldly talent, showing up in droves to witness his greatness time and time again. Their performance Friday night took on the intimate casualness of a gathering of friends – close to a thousand in attendance – hosting a party for a friend visiting from out-of-town. This time, their friend brought his other half to the party, and judging from the rousing cheers and ovations from the audience, there’s no doubt she’ll be invited back.