Spoleto USA Show Review: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn at TD Bank by Chris Robinson

washburn and fleck This quiet banjo duo performance actually took place in a basketball arena-turned-performance space that fit about a thousand people, but the excitement in the air was palpable and when the lights finally went down and Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn came out on stage they were happy, confident, quickly engaging, and fiercely entertaining.

After music’s widely known Top 40 stars, popular recognition for most is mixed and spotty, but if you are a music aficionado and listen to public radio, TED talks, or the like, you know both Fleck and Washburn’s names and virtuosity.

Fleck is easily one of the most innovative banjo pickers in the world, with a reputation for expanding the musical range of his instrument, and Washburn, also a banjo player, is a warm singer with a fascinating backstory. Fluent in Chinese, she almost ended up studying law in Beijing, but was cold-offered a recording contract while being heard “jamming” on the sidewalk of a music convention and hasn’t looked back since. Together, this husband and wife are consummate musicians, entertaining storytellers, and have a wonderful balance of contemporary sensitivity and calm with a feeling of down-home, sit-in-the-parlor friendship.

The two played a far-reaching and near-perfect single set, from Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs standards to progressive jazz and classical compositions, and traded some laugh out loud anecdotes between songs. They missed separate Spoleto invitations last year due to the birth of their baby (Juno Jasper!), and the tyke has since spent his first year traveling with mom and dad as they have wrapped their way back around to Charleston.

The music really is a so widespread and varied, from traditional roots to contemporary innovation and international influences, and although self-effacing with no apologies for their banjo-only approach. The two in fact make you realize how the simple stringed instrument can transcend most others.

The only possible flaw is that steady, slightly sad realization that the goodhearted guy-gal spouse bantering of slightly different preferences in similar pursuits just seems a little too good, crisp, and clean, indicative of how produced, choreographed, and scripted, and has been presented many times before.  It is only a brief moment of disquiet, though, before recognizing that although you are not really in a parlor and have been duped a bit by the seeming spontaneity of the performance. And yet, finally, the duo is ultimately so captivating and accomplished you really don’t mind. - Chris Robinson