Béla Fleck And Abigail Washburn – Whelan’s – Review
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Whelan’s 19 November 2015
‘We hope you like Banjos’ remarks Abigail Washburn smiling cheekily to an eager Whelan’s audience. Laughing at her side sits Béla Fleck, musical partner and husband. Widely regarded as one of the foremost players of the banjo in the world, to watch him play is to be amazed at his innovative technical grace with the often misjudged instrument. Wife and husband playing together, banjo for both, the pair make quite the interesting sound playing, in their words, ‘Appalachian Mountain music’ in a meeting of banjo styles.
Opening with an instrumental, the introduction turns from a twangy sullen country bounce, with a nod of the head between the pair, into ‘Railroad’, a traditional tune from their self titled album. Abigail’s delicate voice, haunting and airy soars beautifully over her old time banjo playing, singing ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’ the lyrical content matching the rhythm, the banjo bouncing along trundling like a train. Abigail stomps a foot and Béla masterfully picks the strings, his fingers turning out more notes than ears can eat, astonishing musicianship.
Discussing banjo styles, Béla explains that he plays in the Earl Scruggs or bluegrass style while Abigail plays clawhammer, otherwise known as frailing or ‘old time’ banjo, inspired by the rhythms and instruments of African slaves brought to North America. It is not often that you see the two styles spun together and their noise is unique. Merging seamlessly together, the instrumental ‘Banjo Banjo’ showcases their meeting, the melody and chord structure deftly performed skilfully arranged and intertwined.
The pair appear utterly comfortable in each other’s presence and their casual dynamic is charming to the extent that it makes for a very intimate and compelling event. There are no barriers at this show as audience and the duo onstage interacts freely, laughing and joking at anecdotes. It makes the experience all the more special, removing any distance between the musicians and audience.
Invited to join the duo onstage is Paul Brady and they perform his song ‘Marriage Made in Hollywood’. Two banjos step alongside his jangling acoustic guitar, Béla rolls lead, Abigail playing rhythm smiles as Paul Brady sings, head back hollering. His is a timeless voice and his addition changes the dynamic and offers a burst of energy and emotion, the melancholic tone and content of the song referencing how the media deals with tragedies feeling particularly relevant and bittersweet. Joined later by singer Maura O’Connell for some a capella singing and three part harmonies, unexpected guests foster an easy atmosphere, the performance feeling impromptu and relaxed.
Nestled neatly in the set is ‘New South Africa’ from Béla’s time with the Flecktones. With its repetitive optimistic melody it offers an example of his technical ability while a medley of ‘Sally in the Garden’, ‘Big Country’ and ‘Polly put the Kettle on’ moves wonderfully. The forlorn old time sound and dark lyrical content is balanced with the bright optimistic notes of ‘Big Country’, Abigail playing the melody, Béla harmonising underneath, creating a stirring sound.
Dedicating the final sweet song to her grandmother, Abigail softly sings and closes the show as Béla accompanied her on banjo. As the duo departed, those seated stood to applaud. Some gigs are a gift.