Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn | Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music | Rock, Pop, Etc | Chicago Reader
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Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

When: Sat., Feb. 28, 5 & 8 p.m. 2015
Price: sold out
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who married in 2009, are two of the greatest banjo players in the world, and on their eponymous duo album released last fall by Rounder they expertly merge disparate sensibilities, united by their shared curiosity. Fleck is the virtuoso, a key figure in the progressive bluegrass movement and a sucker for technical indulgence and fussy arrangements, while Washburn cleaves to traditionalist roots even as she pushes her old-time foundation toward experiments with Chinese traditional music. Deploying banjos of different size and pitch (and one without frets), the pair produces a surprisingly warm, full-bodied sound on an instrument noted for its brittle twang and lack of sustain. Fleck and Washburn deftly interweave arpeggiated lines that form both a sweet, delicate lattice of sound and a sturdy sense of propulsion. The wide-ranging tracks include remade traditional pieces like “Railroad” (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”) and “Pretty Polly” as well as a concise medley of folkish Bartók themes. There’s also a rousing adaptation of a song by quirky gospel-blues great Washington Phillips (“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”) and the Washburn original “Shotgun Blues,” which delivers lyrical bullets in an attempt to settle the score for women victimized in traditional murder ballads (“Wish I was a big girl / Could let my heart be free / But if I was a big girl / I’d have hung you in a tree”). Fleck provides most of the instrumental flash through his agile soloing, but the soul comes from Washburn (who also provides all of the lead vocals). I was half expecting a quickie collaboration with no sense of identity, but the couple has delivered a record far more complex, heartfelt, and rich than I could’ve imagined. —Peter Margasak
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