Saw Bela Fleck (one of my heroes) and Abigail Washburn (someone I knew almost nothing of going in) this past Saturday at the Chan Centre and it was great.
I brought my 9 year old son whom I'm teaching banjo along and was somewhat unsure how much it would appeal to him. He was a little annoyed by how long the introduction went on for but when Bela and Abigail came out and fired up the banjos he, and everyone else in the place, was all ears.
The twosome began with one of Abigail's originals and the delicately balanced sound they put out was near banjo nirvana (the state, not he band). They went on to alternate between old time American and old time Chinese music with Bela's inimitable rippling and swooning 5-string somehow tying the whole thing together.
Abigail loves the Chinese music and she sings it with a passion and grace that strips past any novelty aspects. Her voice was in solid form all night; very strong with just a little grit in an Emmy Lou Harris kind of way.
Then there was Bela.
I'll admit the one concern I had going in was that Bela might tone down his act for his new role as banjo duetist and I might not get to hear him really rip it up. Turns out my fears were very much unfounded; Fleck was as close to full shred ahead as probably anyone has ever been accompanying an old time musician. Not only did he provide dazzling breaks for Abigail's tunes but he treated his audience to a medley of unaccompanied themes from his banjo concerto 'The Imposter' as well as a new solo instrumental 'The Quiet Song'.
A couple paragraphs ago I described Bela's sound as inimitable. This, and an almost surreal smoothness, is the quality that most struck me watching him. As soon as he touched the strings he sounded like Bela Fleck. His darkness of tone, his particular phrasing and his note choices are all part of it, but that thing, that possession of a unique voice, is something I rarely find in banjo players and something I personally value and admire.
Abigail did most of the talking (introducing the tunes, thanking the so and sos) while Bela seemed more than content to sit back and enjoy, occasionally grabbing the mic for a one liner or comedic non sequitur. They possess a certain familiar chemistry that is appealing and understated.
Overall great show. I liked it, my son liked it, and everyone I met at intermission seemed to like it. If you are within range of attending one of their concerts I highly recommend doing so.