Grammy-winning banjo-picking pair, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, brought their virtuosic roadshow to McCain Auditorium Tuesday evening. Despite the punishing cold and a rescheduled “State of the Union” address to keep some patrons home and a KSU-KU basketball game luring many more to the Octagon of Doom, a good-sized crowd managed the uphill trek to offer their support for the celebrated duo.
On their arrival attendees were treated to an impressive center stage array of instruments and supportive electronics all deployed in preparation for the artists’ entry. It afforded a tantalizing preview glimpse of the many possible instrumental combinations and colorations that lay in store for listeners.
Sadly, the only two pages of the bulky, ad-stuffed program brochure relevant to the evening’s performance looked to be nothing more than cover notes for the new Fleck and Washburn album “Echo in the Valley.”
The entry provided no program details, no indication of either probable selections or sequencing, nothing about the instruments being played. In short, it entirely failed in its primary function of helping orient and guide audience members’ appreciation of the presentation.
The performers themselves, on the other hand, did their utmost to engage and retain listeners’ involvement in the proceedings, including them in frequent side comments and an entire segment of seemingly freeform conversation, also at times encouraging them to clap or snap or, in one instance, even sing along.
But for the most part it was just the compelling talents of the players themselves that kept the audience riveted. There’s a special magic that first-class artists wield in their first-hand encounters with their fans.
Fleck is arguably today’s pre-eminent banjoist. (Actually, it seemed like he already was back many a year ago when I heard him perform right here in River City with the late great Johnny Hartford.)
Properly seated (i.e., not on a high stool), he holds the instrument like a classic guitar, his left foot slightly lifted by a supporting block, his right hand positioned to pluck like Segovia rather than strum like Glen Campbell. He is indeed a serious musical virtuoso.
Abigail Washburn is more multitalented. She may not be in Fleck’s league on the banjo, but she’s a more than competent partner.
And she’s a singer whose voice may have been schooled but hasn’t had the “folk” purity” trained out of it. It’s a highly flexible voice, too, capable of ranging from gentle crooning to torrid soul as required. And she can manage a spot of step dancing at need. And not to forget, she’s the genial hostess who does most of the setup talk. Overall, a most gifted performer.
Together they generate a dynamic synergy so volatile and infectious as to be all but irresistible.
Even to ears (like mine) insufficiently sensitive to the distinctive nuances of timbre among the various instruments in the Fleck/Washburn collection or to the technical skills needed to play them, the sonic structures these two dedicated artists collaboratively build are a proof of the persuasive eloquence of live performance at its best. Kudos!