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.
Even if the meaning of that song was not understood by most of the audience, the song that followed was more socially resonant. Washburn suggested the powerful traditional song about coal miners (“Come All You Coal Miners”), written by Sarah Ogan Gunning, could be sung for the people of Flint, Michigan if it were written today, She performed it solo and earned loud applause. It also allowed Fleck to insert a joke that they had arrived at the part of the night where they do their pro-big business song eliciting laughs. This wasn’t the first joke of the evening nor was it the last. At another point, Washburn asked the audience for a word that rhymed with 92Y so she could incorporate it into a song. Fortunately the venue name offers better rhymes than Orono, where they had just performed, as the Maine city’s name prompted the word “porno”. After much variance and some back and forth, “marble rye” was heard and Washburn picked it up which earned more laughs. As a last example, Washburn mentioned about their recently released EP but before she could say the name, Fleck said “it’s called Banjo Banjo” first, in a mock seriousness that earned more chuckles.
I honestly hadn’t known Fleck was so witty before this night so it was great to see this side of him. Continuing this piece would only result in continued praise and sharing other random witticisms from the two (factoid: their young son Juno is somehow fond of golf even though neither of them are), so I will suggest that, if you have any interest in folk, bluegrass, roots or Americana music, check out Fleck and Washburn. Both will be touring throughout the year, together or with other projects and both will provide an excellent concert experience.