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
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 –
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
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