Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at Sunset Center, Carmel
Fleck on March 27, 2017
Live performances are moments captured in time. As fate would have it, the recent appearance of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn in Carmel, rounding off a three-week tour, took place in the aftermath of a (qualified) bit of good news: the failure of the attempt to repeal Obamacare, defund Parenthood and throw millions of people out of the health care system.
The moral arc of the universe is long – very long – these days, as Dr. King reminded us, so the pleasure of bad policies thwarted was mitigated by the appearance of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as the opening act of Sean Spicer’s early morning exercise in performance art the next morning. Next up: sanctuary cities.
But the Fleck/Washburn show was an island of sanity in a sea of madness.
Fleck said his early role model was Earl Scruggs, and his customarily virtuosic performance put him squarely in that tradition, while his ambitious runs, and range, also place him alongside the likes of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. (His jazz interests also show in random quotes, like a riff from “Oh, Susanna’’ in the midst of Washburn’s lovely, minor-key rendition of the standard “Railroad’’ and a riff from “The Beverly Hillbillies’’ thrown into another song, just for the hell of it.
The duo, whose eponymously titled album, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, won a Grammy for 2016 Best Folk Album, eschewed accompaniment, keeping things in the family and rightly taking pride in the expressive qualities of the banjo itself. Although less formally trained , Washburn is no mean player herself, showing off her clawhammer technique in a solo performance (lightly) accompanied by her husband, who provides dry commentary to the action, musing about hiding in the basement while she listens to murder ballads before she launched into “Shotgun Blues,’’ a feminist, “Thelma and Louise’’ style response to all the old time tunes, from “Pretty Polly’’ to “Little Sadie,’’ that culminate in the death of unsuspecting (and innocent) women.
The sweetest tune of the night, perhaps, was Washburn’s contralto rendition of “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today,’’ originally written by Rev. Charles Tindley in 1901. The lyrics remain relevant today.
“There were some who were poor and often despised
They looked up to heaven with tear-blinded eyes
While people were heedless and deaf to their cries
But what are they doing there now.”
The actor/comedian Martin Short once said that working with Steve Martin was like the movie “Deliverance’’: “It’s all fun and games till the banjos come out.’’
Needless to say, the Fleck/Washburn collaboration avoided such calamities. It was a night off from the nightmares of the world, a reminder of the salving power of sound, and the power and glory of chords and concordances.