Watching Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform is to experience both the powerful interplay between their two different styles of banjo and to witness some hilarious banter between the married couple. Just a week or two before they were set to perform at the 92Y, Fleck and Washburn earned a Grammy award for Best Folk album for their record Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. But they didn’t let that award go to their heads (Fleck has already won over a dozen anyways). Instead, they expressed being humbled to be performing in a space where so many great intellectuals had spoken.
As Fleck explained at one point, he plays banjo in a traditional style, similar to Earl Scruggs, by up-picking with the fingers and down-picking with his thumb. On the other hand, Washburn performs utilizing the clawhammer style (mostly down-picking) that Doc Watson was best known for. But there is no obvious impediment to performing together as the two sounded brilliant on stage. Both brought material that has previously been performed before the two began their collaboration. Early in the set they performed a classic Flecktones song, “New South Africa”, one of my live favorites for the full band, stripped down which allowed the vibrant banjo to shine. Later on, Washburn singing in Mandarin, a language she studied in college and refined abroad, performed a song that had its roots in China’s Western Sìchuān Province.