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Few artists are as singular to an instrument as Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are to the banjo. The two have globe-spanning solo careers but have been touring as a duo since 2013 – they also happen to be married to each other and have two children together. Their two Grammy-award winning albums filled this program, along with their take on traditional folk music. The two are no strangers to North Carolina, given the influence of Appalachia on folk music and the wealth of love that our state has for their music – an enthusiastic crowd welcomed them in Memorial Hall for their first duo performance here for Carolina Performng Arts since 2014.
Concertgoers expecting only traditional banjo music without much diversity got much more than they bargained for with Fleck and Washburn. Not only are the "banjo royalty" experts in totally different techniques of banjo playing, but they also call on a unique set of influences and inspirations. Fleck, who for his whole life has broadened the horizons of the "three-finger" or "Scruggs" style of playing, has explored many other styles throughout his career, including jazz and African music (the original roots of the banjo). After starting out her musical career as a singer-songwriter, Washburn plays in the clawhammer style, and her music is infused with her career-long experiences in China with folk music there (she is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese). Their program was myriad in style, rooted in home and tradition yet fresh and contemporary.
A simplistic, intimate stage setting featured Fleck and Washburn surrounded by their various banjos, with colored spotlights adding a touch of drama. "Railroad" opened the show, a mellow and lush rendition of the folk classic. In the signature three-finger style, Fleck's melodies peeked out from a flowing texture, supporting the warm folk timbre of Washburn's voice. At times, the effect of Fleck's playing was almost Baroque in intricacy. Often, the pair of artists paused to introduce a piece before playing – "Over the Divide" retold the story of a Jewish sheepherder in Austria who aided Syrian refugees crossing the border, yodeling while he drove them through the roads known only by sheepherders. Intrigued by this man, Washburn and Fleck represented elements of the refugee story in music: propelling hemiolas and a flowing texture reflect a sense of urgency, unique harmonies hail to Middle Eastern tonalities, and Washburn even yodels on the refrain.
Another activism-based song waxed more poetic – "Bloomin' Rose," from the 2017 album, is the couple's musical response to Standing Rock. With this background in mind, the beautiful melody they've penned became intensely heart wrenching too. A throwback to Washburn's solo recordings brought "Song of the Traveling Daughter," from the 2005 album of the same name. Here, Washburn sang in Chinese, graciously translating each phrase for the audience. It was fascinating to hear the language collide with the rooted American instrument.
The unique musical mergers continued with Fleck's partita-like improvisations on Bach in a long cadenza as delicate as a classical guitar (absolutely mesmerizing), and with Washburn's exuberant clogging with the song "Take Me to Harlan." There are videos on Youtube of this same thing in the studio, but none is quite as joyful as their live rendition, with the booming bass picked up by the floor microphone and livewire energy.
Not one but two encores closed the concert – the classic blues song "Keys to the Kingdom" had the audience singing along, and the oft-recorded gospel hymn "His Eye on the Sparrow" was given a spirited, toe-tapping interpretation.