in performance: bela fleck and abigail washburn

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck.

Sure, a festive spirit dominated the evening seeing as this was the year’s final performance for the evening’s featured artists, as well the last taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour before a winter break commenced. In keeping with the mood, husband-and-wife banjo all-stars Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn served up nine songs where the banjos did almost all of the work, from blends of old time and progressive styles to segments where the strings maneuvered through everything from dazzling lyrical runs to unanticipated bass patterns.

But let’s get to the highlight of tonight’s year-end WoodSongs taping at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, one that didn’t involve a single note of music. At the program’s half-way point, Mayor Jim Gray came to the stage and proclaimed Dec. 18, 2017 as Bela Fleck Day. The audience, needless to say, went nuts, especially considering that embedded within the banjo pioneer’s extensive dossier is the often forgotten fact that for two years (1979-1981) Fleck called Lexington home. So, yes, Christmas came a week early for banjo enthusiasts in a program already overflowing with glad tidings.

Perhaps expectedly, the music was a stunning product of players with differing generational styles – clawhammer and pre-bluegrass “old time music” (Washburn) and bluegrass-rooted inspirations that regularly reached through jazz and especially classical references to create remarkable displays of speed, deftness and technique.

The resulting mixture quickly surfaced in the set-opening “Railroad,” which tossed the familiar folk work song into a minor key, darkening melodic edges nicely as a result. That allowed the traditional purity of Washburn’s singing (deceptively delicate at times, robustly commanding at others) to anchor the tune while Fleck’s typically tireless agility let the tune take flight.

The following seven songs all came from the couple’s second and newest album, “Echo in the Valley” and displayed a richness in variety, delivery and emotive clarity. An instrumental medley of two traditional tunes (“Sally in the Garden” and “Molly Put the Kettle On”), with a ‘90s era Fleck original (“Big Country”) sandwiched in between, highlighted the traditional/progressive merger. Washburn’s gentle vocal intro on the following “If I Could Talk to a Younger Me” briefly downshifted the set to focus on quieter lyrical expression before Fleck again hit the accelerator.

From there, the evening took a dramatic side road by transforming the harrowing “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” into a rugged blues complete with slide banjo colors from Fleck and vocals from Washington that patiently built into a boil. On the flip side, Washburn turned to percussion for “Take Me to Harlan” – specifically, clogging on an amplified floorboard in the manner popularized decades ago by the late John Hartford.

The sobering “Come All You Miners” and the more hopeful gospel standard “His Eye is on the Sparrow” were served as encores, underscoring the inspirational breadth of the set and the shared artistic vocabulary Fleck and Washburn have developed as a performance duo.

That the couple’s four year old son Juno joined them onstage for the finale as an onlooker rather than musical participant provided an inviting family accent. But let’s not forget the occasion, folks. This was Bela Fleck Day. Then again, that title pretty much applies to any day the foremost banjo innovator of our day returns to an old haunt of a hometown.



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