Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn are not your typical dueling banjos.
The husband and wife band performed a personal banjo duo set at Lincoln Center Thursday night in light of their upcoming album “Echo in the Valley.” Washburn stole the show as Fleck accompanied her powerful voice.
Fleck rose to prominence in the bluegrass scene in the 1980’s and is regarded as one of the world’s greatest banjo players. He is best known for his jazz-fusion group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Washburn has been writing songs since the early 2000’s. She has a deep connection with Chinese culture and incorporates it into her songs.
The banjo can be a deceiving and subtle instrument. It may not look like much is going on, but the music that flows out sounds like multiple people playing a single instrument. Washburn’s hand effortlessly glided over her strings while Fleck sat calmly as his fingers created chaos.
The chemistry between the two musicians made it feel like they were inviting you into their home by telling personal stories and talking about their son Juno who was sleeping on the tour bus. They would get lost in their instruments, but then come back in the moment when they made eye contact and smiled at each other. They seemed so comfortable on stage together and would drop inside jokes like it was their own inclusive language. Washburn watched with her head swaying as Fleck played a couple instrumental tunes on his own.
“There’s never a dull moment and I’m so grateful and so honored to get to play with this man,” Washburn said. “He’s going to play all by his lonesome over there for you which is my favorite way to hear.”
The highlight of the set was the title track of their new album, “Echo in the Valley.” Washburn provided well-rounded rhythm through tap dancing. The song included a perfectly sequenced call-and-response between Fleck’s banjo and Washburn’s tapping. She took control of the microphone, jumping from her normal range to a flawless falsetto in a split second.
Washburn gave some background on one of their new songs, “Over the Divide.” She came across a news article about a yodeling Jewish Austrian sheep herder who led Syrian refugees to safety along an unmarked road only known to sheep herders. Fleck told the audience about the writing process of the song.
“This one was a puzzle,” Fleck said. “We were trying to figure out how to finish this one. We started out with a little instrumental. We’d play it at sound checks and we’d go ‘hmm, I kind of like that.’ Then I had this one line; maybe it’s a song, not an instrumental. ‘Isn’t it a shame?’ That was my one line. She didn’t like it. A month went on and then one day we were playing it at sound check and this yodel got embedded. It sort of got stuck in the song and we couldn’t get the yodel out no matter how hard we tried. We tried everything; it wasn’t going anywhere.”
Traci Ferguson was mostly impressed with Washburn’s vocal ability.
“I thought it was amazing,” Ferguson said. “I’ve heard Béla Fleck play before, but I haven’t seen Abigail Washburn much. She’s a phenomenal singer.”
Ferguson said she was amazed at Fleck and Washburn’s abilty to make two banjos sound like a full band.
“I’ve never seen that many banjos in my life,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t know there were big giant banjos, tiny banjos. I had no idea. You think there’s more than two instruments going on the stage. It sounds like a whole band, but it’s just two people playing banjos.”
As a banjo player, Ryan Ferguson loves to see different playing styles live.
“It’s just a different style,” Ferguson said. “I remember when Earl Scruggs came here and played at NewWestFest, and then after seeing Béla Fleck here, I feel like I’ve seen a whole spectrum now. When Bela Fleck goes by himself, he plays classical. It’s amazing that he can play all the different styles. That’s what’s cool about watching him play.”
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn’s upcoming album “Echo in the Valley” comes out October 20.
Collegian reporter Jonny Rhein can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jonnyrhein.