Sparrow Quartet with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, violinst Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee. May 1, 08.
Well, I went to the concert last night with only the hope that it wouldn’t be too weird for my wife to enjoy. What we got was a really wonderful experience. I had only a remote idea of what this group was about, having explored the various websites and listened to short clips of the music. I read somewhere that it was sort of “modern-oldtime” mixed with a big-city coffee-house vibe. Now that I’ve been there and done that, I think it is a fair description of Abigail’s songs…but that’s really only half the story. Of course, I’ve been following Bela’s work since the ‘70’s. I felt I understood his capabilities. ;-)
The “quartet” moniker really started to make sense during the second set. These four people have integrated much of the ‘feel’ of a classical string quartet into a modern “folk” idiom. The arrangements have quite a lot to do with that, many of the pieces start out with violin/cello/banjo ‘preludes’ which evolve (or devolve) into a mix of oldtime, folk, country blues and, well, whatever they happen to create. But let me get back to the beginning…
The venue is a new one for our city (Huntsville, AL). It is an 1890’s structure, originally the ‘company store’ for a large cotton mill (now gone). It has been restored/renovated and converted into a “Performing Arts Center”, including a 300-seat theater. Nice venue, although parking (as usual) is a minor problem. Still, I had chosen excellent seats, about three rows back and to the left of the stage…slightly left of Bela as it turned out. I could watch his L/H work quite nicely. The players were seated in wooden chairs which appeared to be from somebody’s old oak dining room suite. From the left: Bela, Abigail, Ben, Casey (that would be Banjo, Banjo, Cello, Fiddle). Sound was very well done although Abigail’s banjo was often drowned out. I found it amusing that while Bela, Casey and Ben each played a single instrument, Abigail needed three banjos (all Chuck Lee banjos, I think). Clawhammer players will understand the need, esp. as they played in a wide variety of keys.
I gotta say, Abigail’s songwriting and singing took a little bit of getting used to. Her voice is beautiful but her odd “modernistic” phrasing choices and characteristic rising, raspy lilt (not quite right, but I can’t quite describe it) made me think of Phoebe singing on “Friends” (Diane agreed). The first song had a long somewhat dissonant prelude, her quirky vocals and then the virtuosic instrumental stuff. Diane and I kind of looked at each other and shrugged. They reprised this song in the second set (so they could get a better video ‘take’) and it was much more pleasant…I think we just had to get our minds and ears around it.
I had read about Abigail’s Chinese connections and knew we were going to get at least one tune sung in Chinese. She did three and for my nickel, they were the best songs of the night. Perhaps when I cannot understand the words, the voice simply becomes another instrument in my mind. All I know is that I enjoyed it!
As is typical of a group built on virtuoso talent, each player took as solo as they were introduced throughout the evening. Violinist (yes, he fiddled too) Casey Driessen's chops are crazy good. His standout characteristic (at least, for me) was his percussive backing vamp. It is one thing to provide a bit of ‘chop’ to the group but to do it solo and integrate it into a wildly hot fiddle tune (Workin’ On A Building) is just nuts. Lots of classical training there, Miz Diane commented that she knew he was classically trained by the way he sat. Of course, he sang while he played…
Cellist Ben Sollee showed his blues roots singing “Bury Me In My Car” whilst making the Cello sound like a blues guitar. His backing vocals were an excellent counter to Abigail and his cello chops were awesome. He’s got the same rhythmic chop going as the fiddler and this bit of percussion really added a significant layer to the whole vibe.
Then, there is Bela. Last time I saw Bela was a number of years ago with the Flecktones. Prior to that, I had caught him with the Newgrass Revival…so it has been some years and numerous CD releases since I last caught him live. Well folks, he hasn’t slowed down at all. Diane hit it right on the head when she commented: “Everyone else is sitting bolt upright. They act like the music is coming right out of the pores of their skin. Bela looks like he’s flopped on a couch; his right hand barely moves and there is this FLOOD of amazing stuff coming off of his banjo!” Bela’s counterpoint with Abigail’s clawhammer riffs was a study in duet (or quartet) technique. He never stomped on her sections but either supported or harmonized with them. I know the sound of two banjos playing in two totally different styles can be done, and done well…it is just so nice to hear it live! Of course, there are Bela’s jaw-dropping riffs. Some of it, quite frankly, is out there so far I ain’t got a clue. Some of it is thrash-trash. However, the largest percentage is just virtuoso musicianship.
So, two sets, the first being mostly unfamiliar stuff with one or two oldtime tunes played…and even a bit of BG. The second set had more of a country/OT flavor and we got several segues into fiddle tunes. After the final piece (and the standing ovation, stomping, etc), the first encore was simply Bela/banjo and Ben/fiddle. Well, maybe “simply” is not quite right. Fireworks? WMDs? I dunno, but it was a fiddle & banjo medley I would have paid the full ticket price to see by itself. I couldn’t tell you the tunes but I can tell you that the variety of technical prowess shown by both players was of the highest order possible on this planet.
Oh, yeah. I enjoyed the show!
edit: sometimes I'm so dog mad dyslexic! Fiddle and cello player's names/instrument corrected. Sorry about that! Thanks for the catch!
"If banjos needed tone rings, S.S. Stewart would have made them that way."