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Album Review: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 @5:50:49 PM

It is a major event whenever Bela Fleck has a new album released, and Abigail Washburn has had her own series of successful albums. So when these two artists, viewed by many as the First Couple of Banjo, release a joint album, expectations are sure to be raised even higher. Perhaps unreasonably high.  This CD easily meets and, for me, exceeds those high expectations.  This is an album that mixes a fresh look at old-time standards (“Working on the Railroad”, “Am I Born to Die”), murder ballads (“Pretty Polly” and “Shotgun Blues”), gospel (“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”), some original tunes (“Ride to You,” “New South Africa,” among others), and even two short pieces from Bela Bartok. After more than a week of steady listening, I think the album merits what I think is the highest compliment: it gets better with successive listens.

The music and the liner notes have a sweet family focus, with a dedication to their 18month-old son Juno and multiple references to Abigail’s grandmother June and other family members.  The music bears an intimacy and familiarity developed from years of playing together, including a successful concert tour in 2013. The album was actually recorded in their basement while Bela and Abigail stayed closer to home during Juno’s early months.

For the opening song, “Railroad,” Abigail notes that this song that has been sung to children in successive generations of her family. The version here of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is cast in a minor key, giving it a plaintive sound, a significant change for this familiar song.  The Bartok selections are made up of two children dances based on folk tunes. They seem ideally suited for banjo and the arrangement is a masterful blend of Bela’s and Abigail’s playing styles. “Banjo Banjo” continues the family theme with the liner notes revealing that the couple co-wrote the piece on the day that Abigail first felt Juno kick while she was pregnant. “Banjo Banjo” is one of my favorite pieces because of the tasteful blend of the two banjos.  Their banjos are so tightly intertwined that it is difficult to tell who is playing which part at times. (Abigail usually has the left channel and Bela has the right channel on my system.) There are marvelous arpeggio scales where each banjo plays a pair of notes to build a seamless phrase. “Banjo Banjo” is one tune that sounds better with each play.

More needs to be said about the banjo playing. The arrangements are fresh and musical. While Bela occasionally throws in his signature virtuoso riffs, his playing never really overpowers that of Abigail. In fact, her playing is strong and confident on this album. And the arrangement and performances are actually more about making music than about banjos. In fact, I think it is easy to forget that there are no other instruments besides banjos making the music on this CD. This is due, in part, to the variety of banjos used on the recording.

There are seven banjos used on the recordings, and the selection of the banjos seems perfectly matched for each tune. The liner notes document the banjos used on each track.  Most publicity has been focused on the “Missing Link” banjo made by Gold Tone for Bela. It is a low-voiced banjo tuned to C rather than G. Bela’s Gibson Masterone Style 75 and Abigail’s Ome Jubilee are featured on many cuts.  A cello banjo, uke banjo and bass banjo, all made by Gold Tone, are also featured on the album. On “Little Birdie,” a new song written by the duo, Abigail plays a fretless banjo made by Jordan McConnell. The banjos are featured on several photos in the liner notes (along with a Cremona-inspired minstrel banjo made by Dan Knowles).

All of my talk of the banjo playing may lead one to think that this is an album of instrumentals, but that is not the case. There are 9 songs and 3 instrumentals. Abigail’s singing is strong as always, somehow combining power and tenderness as needed by the song. And Bela sings with Abigail on a few songs, including “Railroad” and “What’cha Gonna Do.” There is some humor and, perhaps, poetic justice that Abigail follows “pretty Polly” with her own composition, “Shotgun Blues,” in which the female has the upper hand in a murder ballad.

In many ways, I see this latest album as a natural next step in Abigail Washburn’s musical evolution, from Uncle Earl to her duo work with Ben Sollee and later Kai Welch, her solo albums of original and old-time tunes, and the fine work of the Sparrow Quartet. I think I see more of Abigail’s influence in the shape and content of this CD than Bela’s. But it is difficult to assign a label or category to this album.

  • The album has old-time roots with fresh interpretations.
  • The album has singer-songwriter selections with strong Americana roots.
  • The album has lots of banjos, but it is easy to forget that there are only banjos because the arrangements and playing are so strong.
  • The album has music arranged for a duo that speaks with one blended voice.
  • The album has past family memories woven into the music mixed with the love and promise of a new generation represented most clearly by the photo of cherubic Juno holding a banjo uke.

This is a strong offering from two very fine artists that will appeal to a wide range of audiences and to banjo players, especially. Indeed, as one Amazon reviewer noted, this is an album for people who think they do not like banjos.

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