Banjo royalty captivates at the Chan Centre
If there is a first family of banjo, it's this couple. Béla Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn played to an appreciative crowd at the nearly-full Chan Centre.
The banjo world lost a few greats recently in the likes of Pete Seeger, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. But perhaps no one has had the sheer breadth of impact on this often misunderstood instrument than the inimitable Béla Fleck. He's been nominated for thirty Grammy awards, winning fifteen along the way, and holds the distinction of being nominated in more different categories than any other musician. He and his Flecktones are still one of the biggest draws of the summer festival circuit.
With all the accolades, you might expect him to be a little aloof. Not so. He's a self-effacing, quiet-spoken, humble genius. And you know he's really into his wife. For a guy who has done it all and reached the pinnacle of success in a business so rife with oversized egos, he is remarkably unpretentious. His music speaks for itself.
Abigail is no slouch either. She's the voice of the show—and what a voice. From the first note, my wife and I were instantly racking our brains to put a finger on whose voice she reminded us of. About 20 minutes in, she hit a high breaking note and it struck me: her voice sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris. The girl can sing. There was a sense that this was Béla stepping into the umbra to introduce the world to the woman he loves.
The world loves Fleck; there is no pretending that he isn't the main draw. But this is no Flecktones tour. This is the ‘sitting on the Fleck-Washburn porch’ tour. For many, he is the best in the world at his instrument, and his prowess is simply mind-melting; his signature flurries of sextuplet rolls decorate her solid rhythms, never overpowering and always tasteful. She has a fragility to her voice that's straight out of the old tradition, from back when, as Béla put it, "people used to sit around in the key of D for an hour and get all tranced-out".
In the banjo world, the traditional clawhammer style and newer (faster) three-finger style are typically at odds. This rare pairing brings the styles together in a fusion of old and new, of bluegrass and world music.
It's a big world they draw from. Abigail spent a large part of her life in China and is fluent in Mandarin. It might seem a little strange to see a white girl from Kentucky speaking and singing in Mandarin, but once you get it, you get it. These songs have so much in common with bluegrass it's uncanny. This is what she shares with her husband - a love of music at its most basic, accessible level, a kind of music that is as portable as it is simple. This is a show that's as comfortable in the beautiful Chan Centre as it would be on a pontoon floating down the Yangtze.
Humour was a big part of why this show felt so intimate. They don't script it, so there are some awkward moments, and you leave feeling honoured to have had a glimpse into their life. From personal experience with having a young child, I'm sure their one-year old son has been a large part of their decision to tour this show. It's home, wherever they are. He's on the tour with them, and it comes out in their stage show how giddy they are about it. Béla's second solo, titled "Juno" after his son, was written in a Dallas airport at 3 a.m. waiting for the red-eye back to Nashville to meet the little guy for the first time. While Béla was on stage in Los Angeles, Abigail had gone into labor. He got the crowd to cheer her on via telephone.
It's the stories like these that give the songs context. Every song has a story. The banjo has an incredible story, one that certainly didn’t begin in the deep South. Worth a watch is "Throw Down Your Heart", Fleck’s documentary filmed in Africa in 2008 that explored the roots of the banjo. Their show is a personal gift from two generous hearts. As a special gesture, they donated all their merchandise proceeds from the night to Arts Umbrella, a Vancouver charity that enables those with less to still have access to arts education.
I got the sense that this couple has this burning desire to share something of great value. My wife and I left with a new appreciation of the banjo and really, of people. No matter where we hail from, it’s a universal fact that music unites even the most unlikely pairings. These two are on a mission to bring their understanding of the term “world music” to as many as possible.