Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mr. & Mrs. Fleck Release An Instant Classic

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Rounder Records
5 Scoops of Bosco

Reviewed by Allen Bacon, The Daily Bosco

Once upon a time, in a former life, Comedian and Banjo Impresario Steve Martin would quip "it's impossible to play a sad song on the banjo" as he played the instrument and sang the words "Pestilence, Death and Destruction".

This was obviously before Mr. Martin had met or had even heard of Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn.

That's because the couple have the unique ability to display the widest range of emotions and palette of colors on their chosen instrument.

This is evident right from the get-go on the opening track of their first album as a duo, simply titled Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn (due out on Oct. 7) when they re-envision the Americana Standard "Railroad".

In the hands and voice of Fleck and Washburn, "Railroad" takes on a very soulful and bluesy tone...diametrically opposed to the happy-sounding song we first learned in our grade school music class.

Washburn and Fleck have been playing the banjo together since 2005, when they both joined the folk band Sparrow Quartet. After a decade of playing together and five years of marriage,  this is the very first album as a duo.

It was definitely worth the wait.

Unlike the Sparrow Quartet's 2008 release, which combined bluegrass music with Chinese lyrics and Tibetan influences, this album features ballads, gospel tunes, blues and other traditional American and roots music.

Don't expect the other members of Sparrow Quartet (Casey Driessen and Ben Drieseen) or even Fleck's famous group, The Flecktones, to make guest appearances on this new album.  This is a Fleck family production with even their young two year old son Juno getting into the act with his voice recorded at the end of the last track on "Bye Bye Baby Blues"

This is Bluegrass Unplugged.   Just Washburn and Fleck on their banjos and the expressive voice of Washburn.

The couple's cover of "And I Am Born to Die" pays tribute to the late Doc Watson, who recorded this song with Gaither Carlton.

"Pretty Polly" gives props to another husband and wife bluegrass duo,  E.C. and Orna Ball.

My favorite is "Shotgun Blues" where Washburn sings with a controlled rage behind wonderful finger picking in the background.  The couple even uses the face of the Banjo as percussion on this one.

The original instrumentals "New South Africa" and "Banjo Banjo" are simply beautiful and unlike any Banjo music you have heard.

Washburn and Fleck do not engage in "Dueling Banjos" or in the one-upmanship of songs like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown".  They work together and complement each other here wonderfully like, well, a happily married couple.

Washburn's vocals are extremely reminiscent of the classic Bluegrass female singers.  Fleck even sings some background which is extremely rare for him.  He does a formable job in that role here.

This album is pure joy, especially for those of us who enjoy playing or have attempted to play bluegrass music and is worth a listen.

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