The banjo and its antecedents have a long and honorable history, one well worthy of respect. But like the accordion, the bagpipes, the viola and other instruments, it has been the butt of jokes, with T-shirts positing hammers as “banjo mutes” and routines about intellectually suspect banjo players and why they became that way. That’s an attitude with no respect for cultural history, especially when considered against the musical arguments offered up by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn that turn banjos into objects worthy of artistic consideration. Their gig at Rockwell Hall – semi-fresh after having recently won a Grammy Award for Folk Album of the Year – added to proof that the banjo is not a one-trick pony.
And really, that proof is that which mentally transports the listener into a smaller, more intimate venue – a front porch or a living room – where the distinct musical voices of Fleck and Washburn are displayed.
Fleck noted as the second half of the concert got underway that he’s basically a bluegrass musician enamored of the three-finger-picking style pioneered by Earl Scruggs, one who looks for the solo spots to showcase his technique and ideas.
Washburn, on the other hand, hails from the earlier tradition of “claw hammer” playing where rhythm has a stronger role to play than in the single note flurries more typical of bluegrass musicians.
She is the more overt personality, the major stage presence, and the animated one who gets the audience to sing the chorus to a tune. He’s the sly yet supportive plectrum wizard with an understated sense of humor, more than just the sidekick but content to hold back in support ... mostly.
The whole feel of the concert was one of comfort and traditions. Folk tunes from different cultures played nicely together.
What makes the Fleck and Washburn musical pairing work so well is the give and take the couple engages in. It isn’t just that they’re married, although that may have something to do with it, but that they leave room in their playing to allow the other person openings for individual voices to reveal themselves before floating back into a joint production.
When they played together, the differences were still visible and audible but so too was their ability to mesh into a coherent whole.
On “Banjo Banjo,” there was the stylistic back and forth, the yin and yang as it were, but joint musical goals being achieved at the same time. It was like a tapestry being woven.
For “Hao Hua Hong,” Washburn, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, shoehorned a folk tune from a non-Western tradition into the program with ease while Fleck took the stage for a solo on a small banjo (one member of the audience likened it to a ukulele) that proved big ideas can be coaxed from a tiny source.
It was a good night.