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Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
@ the Royal Festival Hall
14 November 2015

Click an image to enlarge.

What can I say about my wife Abby, except that the first time I listened to a CD of her music, I started driving so fast that I got pulled over for speeding and was made to walk the line by the men in blue! She’s a beautiful singer/songwriter who builds her material around her distinctive claw-hammer banjo style. This results in very rooted and soulful, yet original music of the first order.

Our first musical collaboration together resulted in an unconventional string quartet comprised of two banjos, cello and violin and called The Sparrow Quartet. Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen completed the group, and we did a lot of traveling together over the course of a year or so. We were fortunate to be one of the first American groups to perform in Tibet, sponsored by the Chinese and US governments in tandem. That was a trip!

Abby and I have played as a duo since we first met, trying impromptu duets at picking parties, doing a few tunes at benefits, and occasional radio shows together, but we never took our act on the road – till now.

With the birth of our little boy Juno, we decided that the best way to stay together more would be to play together more.

So starting soon, we are touring together whenever possible, and developing our duo as a real touring act. Eventually we’ll record a record, but for now we’ll let the duo discover its identity out on the road. - Béla Fleck

Abigail Washburn biography

Beijing. A smoke-filled club bustling with people, clanging of bottles, chatter. There is a woman on stage with her banjo. She begins to sing old-time Appalachian music in Chinese. The effect produced is entirely original, a cultural mash-up between two distant yet not so different worlds. The crowd quiets down to listen.

Abigail Washburn never set out to be a songwriter, recording artist or a producer. Her performance at that smoke-filled Beijing club would prove to be an important step toward international acclaim and attention from discerning critics. Wasburn has created a new sound – a sound that challenges traditional notions of culture and countries.

Washburn planned to move to China after a road trip up the east coast, but instead she stumbled upon a professional music career. This east coast trip included a stop at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Louisville, KY where she intended to learn a few banjo tunes but walked away with a demo session for a record deal in Nashville, TN. She cancelled her one-way ticket to China and moved to Nashville. Shortly thereafter in 2004 she joined Uncle Earl. The ‘all G’earl’ group released two records on the Rounder label, “She Waits for Night” (2005) and Waterloo, TN, (2007) the latter of which was produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

In the midst of touring with Uncle Earl, Washburn released her first solo debut, and bilingual album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, (Nettwerk). At that point, Abigail joined cellist, Ben Sollee, in performing her music around the globe. In 2005 Wasburn, Ben and a few talented friends (Béla Fleck on banjo and Casey Driessen on fiddle) formed the Sparrow Quartet and toured China. In 2006, the US State Department and the American Center for Educational Exchange requested that the group come back to lead the first official tour of a US band in Tibet.

In May 2008, the Sparrow Quartet released “Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet” (Nettwerk) which was praised by critics and appeared on several “best of” lists from prominent publications. Produced by Béla Fleck and composed/arranged by the unconventional foursome, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet became an “intimate exploration of crossing global and cultural lines,” says Washburn, who feels a reverence for both American and Chinese cultures. The unprecedented combination of two banjos (clawhammer and three-finger-style), cello and five-string fiddle unfolds - live and on record- in a dreamlike chamber suite. From the flawless ‘Overture” and harrowing revival, “Strange Things,” to the interplanetary, Puccini-inspired old-time fairy tale, “Great Big Wall in China,” this record highlights the brilliant musicianship of each individual, but is at the same time much larger than the sum of its parts.

In 2008 and 2009, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet toured extensively throughout the US and Canada with appearances at festivals including New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, Merlefest, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Vancouver Folk Festival and many more. They were invited by the US State Department to play in China including several performances in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games. In addition, the were filmed on National Geographic Live in Washington, DC and were invited to be a part of the Clearwater Concert, a benefit concert in celebration of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday along with a line-up of some of the most prominent, established musicians in the world. For Abigail and the Sparrow Quartet, 2008 was a year full of accomplishments and successes.

But Abigail Washington does not stop. She is a force of nature that continually attracts others to become a part of her art. Enter The Shanghai Restoration Project (SRP) producer Dave Liang. Washington and Liang first collaborated to produce two electronic remixes of Sparrow Quartet songs released in April 2009.

In December 2008, Washington served as a resident teacher at the Sichuan University Art School teaching traditional US music. In the hours after school was finished, she volunteered for Sichuan Quake Relief performing at earthquake relocation schools. The experience with the students and teachers after the performances left her wanting to do something to help.

In early March, 2009, Washington had the idea to create Afterquake, a benefit EP in memory of the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which left more than 5 million people homeless and hundreds of thousands dead. Washington and The Shanghai Restoration Project united again to go to Sichuan Province, to the relocation schools and into the disaster zone to capture the voices of those affected by the earthquake and sample sounds from the schools and the disaster zone. They sampled, recorded and produced Afterquake in two and a half weeks in Sichuan province. The final result is a beautiful, timeless, intelligent and accessible musical document that blends folk and electronic sounds with post-earthquake samples. A portion of all proceeds will go to the Sichuan Quake Relief organisation.

Whether playing her banjo, or producing an electronic album, there is an undeniable element of Abigail Washburn in every project she embraces. Washington’s spirit and philosophy translate from language to language and bind countries, cultures and genres.

“As more and more people engage in this struggle for a new direction for the human spirit, we’ll recognise that we’re morphing into a global species.”- Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn


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