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A modern-day reach into the American past

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
The Fox Theatre
Tucson, AZ
June 11, 2015
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Review and photos by Mary Andrews

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck have an unrelenting synergistic musical style of banjo playing that blends seamlessly even though their playing styles are very different. Fleck described their different styles in an interview as "Abi uses a clawhammer style that is a down stroke with her fingers and she plucks with her thumb. She doesn't wear picks. It's almost an African style that comes from the early banjo players that come from Africa. Although, they (the Africans) did not call the instruments banjos. I play the three-finger style with three fingers plucking every note. The down strokes are with the thumb. The finger picks up. Both are rippling and we are playing a lot of 16th notes.” The result is magical.

The audience was very familiar with the 25-year career of Bela Fleck with the Flecktones. Many people in the audience admitted that they were unfamiliar with Abigail Washburn before the show. However, by the intermission, they were immediate Washburn fans. She was the humorous spokesperson for the two entertainers and she sings her Americana music for the Muses. Simply, Abigail is smart, funny, masterful, and a passionate performer. Some of her vocals are reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. Other songs have an Edie Brickell -vocal quality. Many of her vocals have a strong Appalachian accent with a subtle yodel. Regardless, Abigail has total vocal control that is intoxicating to hear.

The first set started with a riveting, original arrangement and performance of "(I've been working on the) Railroad." This song was a prime example of the rippling of both of their banjo styles. The second song was Washburn's humorous attempt to rewrite Axel Coon's "Banjo Pickin' Girl” by soliciting audience suggestions for a word or phrase to rhyme with Tucson. Suggestions ranged from ‘get your boots on' to "chewson” to "the noodle song.” Ms. Washburn finally settled for "get your shoes on.” The audience was hooked for the rest of the show.

Abigail never hesitated to boast about her husband being the most innovative, talented banjo player alive today. She shared that Bela Fleck has created a banjo concerto written in all parts for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra called "The Imposter.” He has played with his band, the Flecktones, for over 25 years. He has used the banjo in all genres of music from jazz to bluegrass, folk, classical, rock and world music. Both performers acknowledged they have been heavily influenced by those banjo players that are no longer with us today. Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Pete Seeger were mentioned.

There were many highlights during this two-part set. Both Fleck and Washburn stepped away from their microphones to the front of the stage to sing and play without amplification "Keys To The Kingdom.” This was an excellent demonstration not only to the pure talent of these individuals, but to the excellent acoustics of the Fox Theatre.

There was also the humorous banter between the two artists regarding "murder ballads.” Abigail stating that these songs make her feel better and Bela escaping to the basement when she feels this way. This lead into Abi's self-penned "Shotgun Blues.” This song depicts a woman killing a murderous man.

Abigail Washburn has been an activist for 20-years, with trips to China every year during this time. (China is also where she learned to play banjo.) Tucson was a recipient of her activism on this day. They donated a banjolele and all proceeds from their merchandise sales to the Sonoran Institute for restoring the Santa Cruz River. Their project "conserve to enhance” provides a device placed in homes and businesses to monitor water usage before and after conservation measures. The difference in the amounts of water saved is used to donate money to restore urban washes and rivers.

The encore was introduced as her mother's favorite song, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” This bluesy, gospel rendition of the song was a perfect end to a modern-day reach into the American past.
Set List:
1. Railroad
2. Banjo Pickin' Girl (Axel Coon cover)
3. Banjo Banjo
4. Ride To You
5. Birdie
6. Coal Miner
7. Uke (with Béla Fleck)
8. Taiyang (with Abigail Washburn)
9. Keys to the Kingdom (Abigail Washburn cover)
10. Bartok
11. Shotgun Blues
12. What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?
13. Bela
14. Final Countdown
15. Divine Bell (Abigail Washburn cover)
16. Am I Born to Die? (Doc Watson cover)
17. New South Africa (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones cover)

18. His Eye Is on the Sparrow (Charles H. Gabriel cover)

Related articles:

Bela Fleck (Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival) - Photo gallery - Nashville, TN June 2009
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI August 2007
Bela Fleck & Chick Corea - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI June 2007
Chick Corea & Bela Fleck - The Enchantment - Album review

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

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