“You ready Fleck? ‘I hope so’ ” and with that, Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck began their show at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on October 24. Alternating between six banjos throughout the night, the married duo of Fleck and Washburn embarked on a night of beautifully crafted duets, murder ballads and songs from their new album Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn. An Irish meets Appalachia “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” opened the night, the resonance of the banjo head echoing through the room. “Banjo Banjo” jokingly explained to the audience as the one song they wrote all summer, the simplicity of the title a nod to the toils of a married musical duo, the tune sounded as though it could be the soundtrack to one of those ‘traveling down the road’ montages in a movie.
“Ride to You,” a song of longing, off their new album was a true highlight. Washburn’s voice and intonation adding gravity to the composition. Béla then stepped off to the side of the stage and performed a solo, captivating the audience and treating those left of center.
The old-timey murder ballad from Appalachia, “Pretty Polly” was introduced by Washburn, not surprisingly the chattier of the pair, and she told the story of a girl murdered and buried in a shallow grave, only to haunt her murderer – romantic stuff. From deep in the mountains of Western China, thick cloud cover experienced by Washburn over an extended visit spawned “The Sun is Out” a translated title sung in the original tongue, an uplifting antidote to the previous number. A porch song from 1936, “Keys to the Kingdom” had a ‘You give me Fever’ sing along component complete with audience participation on chorus and snapping. The set ended on a high note, a buzz about the show growing steadily as many shuffled to the merchandise table, as 100% of sales would benefit The Clearwater Foundation, a cause near to the hearts of many in the audience.
Fleck came out alone to start the second set, dedicating a medley improv including portions of “Caravan” and “Big Country,” to his teachers who were in the audience; Marc Horowitz and Bill Keith, of whom Fleck added, “Without them, I’d be nothing.” Washburn joined shortly after, the two speaking to their individual banjo playing styles – Washburn, utilizing the clawhammer style with its African roots and Fleck with the three-finger style honed by Earl Scruggs and many others – combining for a truly pleasant binary-banjo sound. “Bring me my Queen” with lyrics “She takes all my love, all my notions, tears them all down to the ground. Oh, bring me my queen,” shared the dual nature of love, the pains and needs that come with territory.
An original by Béla featured simple lyrics “What’cha gonna do when the land goes under the water” at an urgent pace and echoing the sing-along style of Pete Seeger, who Fleck remarked “is why a lot of us are good at singing along.” Another murder ballad/revenge song followed, this one a self-infused, more passionate number from Washburn, the reverberating head of the banjos contributing to the foreboding nature of the tune. An encore of “New South Africa” was preceded with the history of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones performing in South Africa upon Nelson Mandela becoming president of the ‘new’ country. With an encore of “I Sing I’m Happy, I Sing because I’m Free,” recalled by Washburn as her grandmother June’s favorite song, the crowd was enlivened as they set out into the crisp autumn night in Troy.