Last night Abigail Washburn and her multi-Grammy-winning husband Béla Fleck
brought the back porch to the Fox Theatre for an evening of community bonding over worldly, and world class banjo pickin'. The duo are on tour promoting their new self-titled duet album.
The playing was predictably dazzling, but the cozy relationships, between the two and with the crowd, were the show's highlights. Particular fun was Washburn's introduction of an original murder ballad. As she talked about her fondness for murder ballads in general, and the inspirations for the one she was about to sing, Fleck interjected commentary about how, when she starts playing murder ballads, he heads down to the basement and starts fussing with resonator screws and finding uses for 3-in-One oil and a tiny Phillips head screwdriver.
A later conversation with the crowd focused on KXCI, which Washburn referred to as "that radio station that has the reputation for being so cool."
As Fleck has toured the world with his band, the Flecktones, he's won a cabinet-full of awards, performed with rock stars and jazz greats, and re-defined the whole point of a banjo. Washburn has meanwhile become a global diplomat and collector of Asian instruments and musical aesthetics. Last night she gave a master class in how to engage a crowd as if inviting them onstage, and proved she is a whale of a clog dancer.
Her background may even be the more remarkable of the pair. It certainly explains some of the hints of Oriental influences in both their music. From her website
"Washburn is one of the few foreign artists currently touring China independently and regularly. She completed a month-long tour (Nov-Dec 2011) of China's Silk Road supported by grants from the US Embassy, Beijing. Abigail ... gave a talk at the 2012 TED Convention in Long Beach about building US-China relations through music. In March of 2013, she was commissioned by New York Voices and the NY Public Theater to write and debut a theatrical work titled, Post-American Girl, which draws from her 17-year relationship with China and addresses themes of expanding identity, cultural relativism, pilgrimage, the universal appeal of music and opening the heart big enough to fold it all in. Abigail was recently named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University. Her efforts to share US music in China and Chinese music in the US exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence."
The duo's "evening with" performance was a musical adventure from the heart of Americana to parts unknown, studded with cultural gems from all over the globe. It was a benefit for the Sonoran Institute, which, among many conservation projects throughout the Southwest, is working to restore and protect the lower Santa Cruz River. Such environmental concerns are also near to Washburn's heart. She participates in the Nature Conservancy's All Hands on Earth program which highlights artists' engagement with nature. Other participants include Glen Hansard, La Santa Cecilia and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.