Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
"I sing because I'm happy," sang Abigail Washburn toward the end of her show with fellow banjo picker (not to mention, husband) Bela Fleck in the closing number of the night "His Eye is on the Sparrow."
Washburn had a lot of reason to be on this night in a beautiful setting at Harvard University. The two held court over two sets, just the two of them and their banjos and vocals, mainly Washburn's.
Washburn and Fleck are touring in support of their first ever duo, self-titled album. (Fleck was a member of Washburn's Sparrow Quartet, but that was Washburn's baby). Over the course of the night, Washburn and Fleck played about three-quarters of the album.
But this was not a mere replication of the recorded music. Far from it. Washburn is a fine singer, tending to be on the softer side, but she also could pick up more than a notch or two, pouring emotion into the song ("Shotgun Blues"). Fleck helped out occasionally on backing vocals, but the singing was Washburn's bailiwick.
The stage banter between the two also helped. Fleck, about 20 years older than his wife and with a longstanding career of his own, pointed out the musical differences of how he and Washburn approach the banjo (three finger picking from Fleck versus claw hammer, which involves strumming the strings, for Washburn).
Both certainly are adept at the banjo, but the low-key Fleck seemed to be taking it to a different level. This was not "Dueling Banjos." Far from it. At times, Fleck made his instrument sound like an acoustic guitar ("Bring Back My Queen") or a blues staple.
He started the second set alone playing a trifecta of a song from Tanzania and two from Mali as he has toured Africa. The songs melded into each other, so it wasn't all that clear where they separated. What was obvious was that Fleck also knew how make his banjo become one with the African compositions. At the close of the regular set, Washburn and Fleck played "New South Africa," a song not only on their new disc, but also an old Flecktones ditty.
Washburn is keen on Chinese culture, having spent time in China. She used her skills in singing "Taiyang Chulai."
Washburn and Fleck have more than their music to keep them going. They also have a 1 ½-year-old son who keeps them going. But they didn't always think that way, they related. When Washburn gave birth in the summer of 2013, they figured they would have a lot of downtime to work on a new album. "We were going to get a lot done," Washburn told the crowd.
Nice try! They soon realized that was not going to be a summer of prepping songs for the new disc. With the humor of being new parents clear on the audience (and obviously to the principals), they ended up with one but one lone song that summer.
"We didn't have time to write the lyrics," Fleck joked, before introducing "Banjo Banjo." Apparently, they didn't have time to think of names either as Fleck called the title "rather weak."
Of course, that had nothing in common with the song itself, a bit quieter, giving it a more intense feeing with Washburn setting the pace.
Washburn introduced a gospel feel to the night as well with songs like "Keys to the Kingdom" closing the first set with the crowd singing along and "Am I Born to Die," which Washburn heard at Doc Watson's funeral.
But this was not a night contemplating the end of life. In the hands of Fleck and Washburn and their stellar styles, there were lots of reasons to be happy.