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When banjos are the exception


Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and his much lauded partner Abigail Washburn – on vocals and banjo – created musical magic and a lot of fun at their Guitar Festival performance.

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Really, Adelaide’s done such an amazing job with this year’s Guitar Festival that if that was all of my culture until 2017, packed into one week, I’d probably be OK.

Last night was Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn – WOW. Anyone who knows Béla Fleck’s work would assume as much, but if you don’t know Abigail Washburn, well, they’re married, they share a child and, because of the three-year-old, they’re touring together. What a ripper of a good thing!

Yes, Fleck’s a bluegrass legend, but Washburn’s pretty damned accomplished, too. Not only can she keep up with his picking; she can sing a song so sweet you forget he’s the Béla Fleck. I’m fan-girling her right now, and it’s not only her songbird voice or her stylish banjo-playing, but she’s really very funny.

It’s clear the two of them love making music together and love just hanging out because they tell bad jokes (some are good), and they giggle a lot, and they play ridiculously good music together. Could a couple have any more fun? And aren’t we lucky for it! ‘We’, as in the audience of the Adelaide Guitar Festival, and didn’t they love that joke best of all because there’s no guitar at all with these two; there are banjos. Awesome banjos. And kudos to the organisers of the festival for having the insight to not give a hoot about musical technicalities.

Fleck is a virtuoso and Washburn’s sublime, and together they find a rhythm that’s comfortable, that’s somehow home. Please, take it from this girl who grew up along the Blue Ridge Mountains and walked along the southern slopes of the Appalachian Trail: I sure did feel the down-home grace of their songs and the pure joy of their playing that only banjos can bring to Bluegrass. (Their second song was ‘Banjo, Banjo’, being a perfect example of the irony of this festival that makes me so proud.)

I do believe the only person who smiled more than me was Washburn, who, of course, was smiling at Fleck – he’s so stinking good. And this review just wouldn’t be right if I didn’t give a shout-out to Tom West, who opened the show (no pressure): an emotional songwriter from the Adelaide Hills. The kind you close your eyes to. The kind that makes you drift away. Triple J unearthed him; Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn no doubt spurred him on. He, at least, had a guitar.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn performed at Adelaide Town Hall as part of the 2016 Adelaide Guitar Festival.


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