Review - Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn Live Concert -BanjoCrazy.com Exclusive


Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn's live concert performance this winter in Colorado is reviewed by Carla Roberts of BanjoCrazy.com


Stretching the Boundaries of the Banjo



Béla Fleck’s signature baritone banjo, called the Missing Link, was debuting onstage in Durango, having only recently become available and I was curious to see and hear one, and I was intrigued by the lady banjo player sharing the stage, Béla's wife Abigail Washburn. Lured to attend this public ritual of banjo worship along with a reverent crowd (congregation?) eager to be filled with the glory of sound, we were all warmed to the soul on a cold winter’s night.



Surrounded by an array of glinting banjos bathed in the the soft lighting of the concert hall stage, Abigail Washburn began with the simple yet infectious clawhammer backdrop and then vocals to “I’ve been working on the Railroad”. Not a familiar version, this had a haunting G modal simplicity that blossomed with Bela’s baritone (Missing Link) intertwining phrase by phrase with the delicate clawhammer and overlaying the rhythmic bass groves, chromatic counterpoint and unexpected chords. I realized on that first song that I was in banjo heaven!


The Durango crowd warmed up immediately to Abigail’s request for rhyming phrases for the next song, a 1930’s Coon Creek Girls rendition of "Banjo Pickin" with a localized twist that created a wry and folksy rapport with listeners and highlighted the bell like tone of the clawhammer.

Third was an amazingly pleasing blend of Béla on the banjo uke and Abigail on the ceb-5 cello banjo, with the banjo uke shining silvery in the spotlight and cutting through the deep resonance of the cello banjo with it’s delicate crystalline high end effortless gliding along. That cello banjo filled the hall with it’s tremendous full bass and reminded me of the Chinese Pipa (lute), a prelude to some more Chinese influenced compositions to come. Abigail’s alto voice added the intoxicating bitter-sweetness to the ballad that held the audience in suspension for a split second before applause erased the spell.


Béla and Abigail were “stretching the boundaries” of the banjo in a way no one had ever attempted with the very Chinese modal clawhammer styling on “Little Birdie”- a sort of Chinese Hillbilly Music with bends and slides in the clawhammer styling and a thumping rhythm on the cello banjo. It was music awash in novelty and careful crafting, with Abigail executing lovely slides and falsettos in her silky blues voice.


Off to China with “The Sun Has Come Out and We Are Still Happy” – a Sechwan folk ballad taught to Abigail by old lady Huang, with a traditional arhythmic rolling intro, a very long held sung note and a rollicking picking and clawhammer duet galloping off to the song’s finish of a lusty vocal ending. Béla's three finger picking on the bluegrass banjo simulated the Chinese classical style with a higher countermelody and exquisite arrangement that was a real crowd pleaser.


Béla wowed us with a couple solo spots. A medley featuring his five-string bluegrass picking started with “Drive” from the New Grass Revival’s Bluegrass Session. A bluesy ragtime groove with amazing rolls and a whimsical dissonance that returned to a ragtime theme after a saunter through the woods of lightning rolls and embellishments was followed by what I call “jazzgrass”, a chromatic breeziness infused with a ringing drone and occaisional suprising chord and then off and running with the signature fancy runs . The third in the medley was a modal enchantment infused with a classical sweetness and clarity of a repeating melodic theme, repetitive yet complex and sometimes bluesy, the notes dipping and flowing like a mountain stream, with unpredictably brilliant twists and turns of melodic structure. The banjo in the hands of Béla has all these musical personalities that are brought forth and recede during his ovation inspiring solos.


Abigail led the audience is some gospel sing alongs, my personal favorite being "Divine Bell" with the audience belting out the chorus “how loud must be the sound to turn this world around” and some impromptu clogging to spice things up. As the evening progressed she became more animated and was clearly enjoying herself.


The mixture of world-class musicianship, folksy humor and audience participation made for an intimate and satisfying musical feast that Durangoans will not forget. For banjo enthusiasts, seeing and hearing such an intriguing array of banjo types played by one of the world's best was inspiring. Béla and Abigail stretch the boundaries of the banjo and our imagination with their brilliant composing, arranging and performance from a truly international perspective.





Paul Roberts with Bela Fleck's Missing Link Baritone Banjos Backstage with the
Missing Link

Please visit BanjoCrazy.com's new Béla Fleck Page for more articles, reviews and news about Béla Fleck.
Carla Roberts of BanjoCrazy.com

Carla Roberts

Carla Roberts is a world music multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, dancer and square dance caller who performs and teaches in the Four Corners of the Southwest. She is the webmaster for BanjoCrazy.com


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More Béla Flek Banjo Articles
Listen to Béla's CD's
Backstage with Béla and the Missing Link Béla's recent album on Amazon.com Kennedy Center Performance
Béla Fleck Page Review of "Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn " CD Gourd Banjo Video
Missing Link Blog Abigail Washburn's Shop  



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Visit Béla's website belaflek.com


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