The end of season concert at Carnegie Hall, a Friday night, I’m tired from working, but I know I’ll be inspired, so in I go, get my pass, take my seat, and wait for what can only be described as a gentle, humorously pleasing, and enchanting musical evening. I waited, knowing we would soon be in the presence of true banjo-ist greatness, the incredible Bela Fleck, who basically re-invented the preconceived notions of what a banjo can do. And add to that, the lovely and witty Abigail Washburn, Fleck’s confidante, wife, mother of their son, trusty traveling companion, musical collaborator, and all around good-natured presence to compliment his slightly shy and hitherto marginally serious stage persona. He began to fall in love while he watching her dance, apparently, which is a good beginning to any story. They seem so happy in their little world of music and baby blankets and endearing stage banter. We smiled to see them.
The first I remember hearing his name (not just incidentally named for Bela Bartok) was in the early days of New Grass Revival, a band I loved then and whose recordings I still revisit regularly. With Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle, and vocals in the early 80’s, and later with the addition of Pat Flynn on guitar and the amazing powerhouse vocalist John Cowan on bass, they pretty much rocked the contemporary bluegrass world. The unique chromatic banjo style of Bela Fleck began to rule the world. He was king. His reign continued thru the many accomplishments of The Flecktones, as well. Nobody sounded like that, then or now.
Sharing the throne of banjo greatness is the young and vivacious Queen Abigail. An amazing clawhammer banjo player herself, no slouch for sure, she is a walking blend of so many styles, each of which makes her who she is, the past, the future, the local, the global, all familiar and foreign at once. I was the most in love with her when she sang in Chinese, not something you expect, but delightful in every way. She took me there. She took bits from so many places and sewed them flawlessly together to make this kind of musical quilt, strange and comfortable all the same.
The duo opened with “City of Refuge”, whose simple elegant lines left me with these lyrics, “Where there’s a mother, where there’s a father, Adam’s on the roof and Eve is in the gutter, Eden’s on the far side where the circle started, to run with the gods, you gotta run harder, run run run to the City of Refuge…where everyone is made new…where our burden’s laying it down, where we came from…”
Abigail sang the praises of Lewisburg, and kept returning to the thoughts of the moving here, so charmed was she by our little burg. She would say things like, “So, do most of you write children’s books? Because it seems like you just would, that’s all.” Near to me in the theatre was a small child fussing, a golden-haired boy, none other than one-year-old Juno Fleck making his presence known to mama across the aisles. (In May of 2009,the Bluegrass Intelligencer website satirized the upcoming “strategic marriage” of Washburn and Fleck, with Driessen joking that the couple promised a “male heir” who will be the “Holy Banjo Emperor”.) And so he may be. I kept thinking, will I see that kid on stage in 15 or 20 years, the Crown Prince of Banjo Royalty? Abigail showed her motherly pride and said, “He’s cute, right? Really cute?” While the babysitter took him out so his remarkable parents could continue with what it was they came to do, they introduced and played the one song they were actually able to write during an entire summer off-tour, after Juno perhaps took up more creative energy than originally expected. And perfect, it was.
They worked their way through two sets of amazing, stirring, and inspiring works, drawing from traditional to the bluesy 30’s (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”) to Chinese story-telling ballads to unimaginably astute originals. Sometimes when Abigail would introduce her Chinese selections, Bela would good-naturedly play amusing sound effects to further articulate the story. One Chinese love ballad translated into, basically, “Under the moonlight, the human race continues.” Abigail took up the large cello-banjo, a whole lotta banjo for a little gal, and played a song I fell in love with, called “Bring Me My Queen”, with the beautiful lyrics that say, “Take all my money, take all my dreams, I’ll just swim across the ravaging seas…She takes all your friends, Takes all your lovers, Buries all the bodies in her heart’s deepest cover, Just don’t play the fool, Don’t make it all new, It’s time, time, time, time, time, Bring me my queen… She takes all my love, Takes all my notions, Tears them all down to the ground, Ooh, bring me my queen…” That touched my heart, and I scrawled what I could into my notebook in the dark hall, hoping to salvage enough to find the rest. It touched my heart.
They spoke respectfully of each other’s accomplishments and achievements. His brilliant concerto, her amazing commencement speech to her alma mater (google it, it’s splendid), his Flecktones, her interpretations of traditional hymns and more. They played songs by the original Coon Creek Girls, he did a segment alone (and even asked for requests), she creatively minored-up “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and it works wonders as a lullaby, they recreated the ambiance of playing acoustically on someone’s porch, we sang along, we laughed and marvelled and felt so much a part of this little family who came to see us here.
You can hear or read interviews with each of them, his here at pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_oralh_belafleck.html and her’s at NPR’s All Things Considered archives. And of course you can find out more on their websites, belafleck.com and abigailwashburn.com.
It’s a precious, little, contented place where their souls reside: learning, sharing, composing, loving, parenting, collaborating, and celebrating. It must be musically joyful and spiritually fulfilling… A meeting of the minds and of the banjos. So, when are they moving here?
– Susanna Kenga, LBSPY #54 (June 2-30, 2014)