As acquired musical tastes go, solo banjo performance ranks just a few spots above bagpipes. In the hands of a less-than-virtuosic player, a concert can go from novel to droning to unbearable in a matter of minutes.
World-renowned banjoist Béla Fleck joked near the end of last night’s concert with Abigail Washburn that the audience had successfully “made it” through an evening of two banjos. Thanks to a broad-ranging setlist and a pair of near-flawless performances by Fleck and Washburn, the hour-and-a-half concert rarely felt like a drag, and in fact there were many awe-inspiring moments. Like the proggiest of prog metal, a Béla Fleck show is best enjoyed with mouth agape, and Fleck’s warp-speed fingerpicked solos were frequently jaw-dropping.
But at a certain point, even the world’s best banjo-toting couple will run up against certain tonal limitations. Washburn is an accomplished clawhammer player, and her simpler style complemented Fleck’s picking most of the time. But we eventually grew tired of the unvarying chirp of her rigid old-time playing. The saving grace was often Washburn’s strong singing voice, which shook the rafters of TD Arena on songs like “City of Refuge” (a Washburn original) and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Some audience members began to get restless during Fleck and Washburn’s oft-lengthy banter between songs. The duo are well-educated and well-spoken (Washburn previously aspired to be a lawyer), and they seemed intent on explaining the nuances and anthropological significance of the songs they played. They spoke of folk songs from the fields of Kangding, China, and field recordings from Southern front porches. As a result, the concert sometimes took on a professorial tone, as if this were a master class instead of a concert.
We left the concert with the same question we had upon entering: Why two banjos? You’d be hard-pressed to find better players than Fleck and Washburn, but can their chosen instrument really stand up on its own? Aside from one song where Washburn played a bassy arpeggio on a cello banjo, the show really was wall-to-wall plain ol’ banjo.
What the concert needed was more moments like the duo’s performance of Doc Watson’s “Am I Born To Die?” Fleck was impressive as ever, but he refrained from shredding any solos. Washburn set her banjo down and belted out the song in a high Appalachian warble that brought a catch to our throat on the first verse: “And am I born to die/ To lay this body down?/ And must my trembling spirit fly/ Into a world unknown?”
What we wanted was a show that spoke more to the heart and less to the head.