A rare visit to these shores for Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn saw the pair on stage at The Barbican – it was the simplest of stage setups, a couple of chairs, a few microphones and a couple of banjo stands for each player. Bela Fleck is, of course, the master of all things three fingered Scruggs style, and so much more. Having exhausted what Bluegrass offered by way of a challenge he expanded into jazz – for example his collaborations with Chick Corea – and with the Flecktones into the world of experimental electric jazz-funk. Abigail Washburn’s own banjo prowess is in the realm of clawhammer – and of course she also sings. Bela does not sing. Their combined talents have been exhibited on a series of duo albums which take a more traditional folk tack, albeit traditional folk embellished by the finest of banjo playing. Material from their recent album ‘Echo in the Valley’ has been played in the UK for the first time on their brief tour, and made up a good part of the concert.
The first half settled in with familiar songs such as ‘I’ve been Working on the Railroad’ – which blends in snippets of the appropriate ‘I come from Alabama (with a banjo on my knee)’. Washburn’s singing has a strong tone and an attractively hard clarity which makes her vocal contributions quite riveting – there’s something of that “high lonesome sound” about it. The playing offered a dazzling display of banjo mastery; both are superb players of course but it’s clear that Fleck often leads the direction as Washburn watches his fingers intently when he starts to improvise on any song or tune set. It’s a mastery that is acknowledged with a, “Not bad, Fleck…” comment after a particularly stunning set of variations around the melody of ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’.
The pair must have a signal for when it’s time for the last stroll through the closing bars, but this is so subtle as to be imperceptible from more than a short distance from the stage – from a few rows back it looks like simple telepathy.
So far, then, so folksy – but the first somewhat unexpected sidestep was for ‘Over the Divide’, a song which was inspired by a news report of a Jewish Austrian yodelling sheepherder who ferried Syrian refugees across the border from Hungary to Austria using backroads and farm tracks – it made a real impact on them both as here was someone who saw a problem “and knew exactly what to do”. Naturally, the song does have a yodelling section by Washburn. It makes the point, though, that the banjo is not the instrument solely of the conservatively inclined; this is modern music with a progressive slant both in playing and in thought. There was another political slant on Sarah Gunning’s ‘Come All You Coal Miners’. Driven along by Fleck’s lightning fast picking there’s an intensity to the music that perfectly complements Washburn’s sung complaints against the heartlessness of the mine owners – “they’ll take your very lifeblood / they’ll take our children’s lives / Take fathers away from children / And husbands away from wives” – and all for little pay. It’s a call to organise to ensure better and fairer working conditions and to eventually “sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell”. Timely when it was written and timely today, as the song was dedicated to a group of American miners in Harlan County Kentucky who are blockading the mine’s train line – until they get paid what they’re owed in back wages.
There was a lighter side that the pairing displayed, particularly in the second half, as their song introductions became increasingly lengthy punctuated with a dry humour. There’s a long tale of just how the great natural enmity between three finger Scruggs style players and oldtime Clawhammer players came to be crossed when Fleck and Washburn married. And whilst both Bela’s description of his pre-Abigail self as
someone “looking for love in all the wrong places” who found that “the more I played my banjo the less women seemed to like me” and Abigail’s description of her banjo playing as “mosquito repellent for men” are kind of funny (alright, laugh out loud funny) in their delivery, there was surely a small part of the brain of every audience member saying “What? Anti-Banjo jokes ? Really?” Because it cannot be denied that there is no music as fine as a well-played banjo – it is acknowledged as the only instrument that sounds like angels singing even when it is just being tuned. And capable of such diversity – Washburn brought her love of Chinese poetry to her love of the banjo for ‘Song of the Travelling Daughter’, and Fleck brought his love of The Beatles to a medley of ‘Within You Without You / Imagine / Martha My Dear’ which showcased harmonic heavy playing between two astonishing sections of fast up and down the neck playing demonstrating incredible left-hand agility.
And they can bring it right down to Appalachian purity, with a murder ballad arrangement, full of ominous bass runs from Fleck, of ‘My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’ which they adopted after really thinking about the words. Washburn clogged like a noisy marionette whilst singing ‘Take Me to Harlan’, and the occasions when they sang and played off-mic – as on the encore song ‘Keys of the Kingdom’ which also required audience participation – were compelling.
It was, in all, a perfect night of banjo music – tied to a folk-duo format which showed off so many of the pair’s interests within that broad term and with dazzling, but in no way jarring, sidesteps into displays of exemplary playing that was never less than compelling. Their obvious joy in their playing, their jokey asides and the shaggy-dog stories, just capped it all. Let’s hope they return to our shores soon.