I hope you had an opportunity to see the Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn concert at the Bijou last week. It had to be among the most pleasant, fun evenings I’ve spent in the theater and I’ve spent far more than I can remember. From beginning to end it was a flawless flow of exquisite music and funny, pleasant chatter from the stage. And always important to me: the performers seemed to have a good time. If they didn’t, they are world class actors.
For those of you who don’t know, the performers are married and references were made to their two-year-old son Juno, who they said was hopefully sleeping outside in bus (with a caregiver they named :-)). They’ve each toured the world with various configurations of musicians – he most famously with the Flecktones, but they pointed out that traveling as a duo allowed the family to be together virtually all the time.
And they were funny. As they entered the stage one of them quipped, “I hope you like banjo music.” Banjo was the only instrument played all night, though there were variations in style and build. They bantered about which is the best style, her claw-hammer style or his Scruggs/bluegrass style. The funniest story of the night involved the recent Grammy Award Ceremony in which the couple won the Grammy for Best Folk Album for their 2015 release, “Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.” It was his sixteenth Grammy Award either solo or shared.
The story involved being told to park blocks away from the red carpet and having to walk that far in their fancy attire only to walk the carpet and have no one want to ask questions or react to them. A group of girls began screaming and they felt better until they realized Johnny Depp was behind them. And it went from there. Their comedic timing on the story was perfectly honed.
The music covered the range you would expect from a person who has been nominated in more categories than anyone else in Grammy history. Old time, gospel, country, bluegrass, classical, and even a song in Chinese made it onto the playlist. I thought we were being set up for another joke, but it turns out Abigail has a degree in East Asian studies and is fluent in Mandarin. She’s lived in and toured China and has recorded in Chinese. She’s also a Ted Fellow and has written and produced a theatrical production, “Post-American Girl.”
With their credentials, it’s easy to forget that at the base of it they are two of the most gifted musicians working and certainly are among the best banjo players in the world. Casey Driessen, the gifted violinist with whom they worked along-side Ben Sollee in the Sparrow Quartet famously joked that they would produce a male heir who would be the “Holy Banjo Emperor.” The sounds they – and especially Bela can find on a traditional instrument with which we typically associate a particular sound is quite amazing. In his hands it just as easily becomes a Chinese or classical instrument as it does a bluegrass instrument.
The two also highlighted Knoxville connections along the way. They talked about other shows they’ve played in the Bijou and how excited they are to return each time. Bela talked about a song that he said was written in both the homes of Ashley Capps and Todd Steed. He also said he credits Ella Guru’s with helping give birth to the Flecktones. They also donated the profits from the show to the Joy of Music School. They made enough specific connections that the night felt like music among family.
There were too many stand-out songs to single out them all. I did leave with the haunting, “I Wonder What They are Doing in Heaven Today,” reverberating in my brain. Abigail’s vocals on this and numerous other songs were simply superb. They also did what has become a tradition for acoustic performers in the Bijou when they stepped to the front of the stage for a non-amplified song. I’ve never heard an audience so quiet and the song was perfect.
I’ll post a video sample of their music below and, as is often the case, I’ll try to post the remaining photographs from this set to the Inside of Knoxville Facebook page sometime this weekend. The video sample is not from their regular repertoire, but shows their fun side and versatility as they cover Europe’s, “The Final Countdown.”
Finally, congratulations to Mary Linda Schwarzbart on winning the free tickets to see John Mayall on March 10. Should be a great show. Watch this space for more upcoming ticket giveaways.