Near the end of a two-set, two-banjo performance last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Abigail Washburn thanked the crowd for allowing her a few hours of quality time with husband Bela Fleck. Such are the sacrifices of the modern day family band, where a quiet night on the town winds up playing out onstage.
Curiously enough, there was a charming and very casual intimacy at the heart of the performance, where the married banjoists sans rhythm section allowed the broad differences in their playing styles to support and compliment each other.
On paper, that might seem like quite the task. Washburn displayed an elemental, largely traditional sound built around rhythmic, clawhammer-style patterns but with a major global twist. She sang three songs in Chinese, using the music’s often exotic drama as a passport out of the rural stigma that still dogs the banjo.
Former Lexingtonian Fleck, on the other hand, has never operated within the banjo’s stylistic norm. Throughout last night’s program, he shot off riffs of dazzling speed and agility, displayed an improvisational intuition that was endlessly imaginative (but was never overplayed) and wrapped it all up with performance style that was consistently playful.
During a solo segment where he showed off the gorgeous, meaty tone of the baritone banjo, he bobbed his head back and forth to a childlike melody with a subtle but decidedly wicked grin on his face. Later, during the set-closing acoustic revamp of his Flecktones tune New South Africa, one of the tunes where Washburn said she felt brave enough to venture into “his territory,” the riffs flew by like gusts of winter wind. Fleck, as always, made such Olympian string sounds seem like second nature.
But there was also a wonderful stylistic simpatico to the show, from the effortless melodic harmony the couple’s divergent banjo styles discovered during the Washburn original Bring Me My Queen to a duet encore reading of His Eye is On the Sparrow with Fleck on banjo and Washburn working exclusively as a vocalist. It was the simplest of of gospel-fused joys – a spiritual that was truly spirited.
Leave it to the mighty banjo, along with the family stamp from two of the instrument’s foremost ambassadors, to make the heavens rain with a distinctly different kind of string music.