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SMF review: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

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What a great afternoon show.

Marriage and fatherhood haven’t altered Bela Fleck’s passion for musical exploration. If anything, they’ve made him more open, more adventurous, as if he took a look inside his beloved banjo and saw yet another new road worth taking.

I’ve seen Fleck half a dozen times over the years, with several configurations of the Flecktones, with bassist Edgar Meyer, with Meyer and percussionist Zakir Hussein. But Sunday afternoon’s show, performed as a duo with his wife, Abigail Washburn, was something else altogether.

Fleck was animated, and funnier than usual. He took requests from the audience, and he even sang a few lines of harmony on one of Washburn’s songs (he’s always been famously non-vocal). Most of all, he looked happy, and comfortable. He knows he’s one of the finest musicians in the world, and there were no bells, whistles, light shows (or Victor Wooten) to underscore that solid fact. He just played, told a few dry jokes, and smiled at his wife a lot.

Fleck and Washburn have a wonderful onstage chemistry. She is an accomplished clawhammer banjo player, while he uses the finger-picking Scruggs style (as a base, that is; Fleck plays chords, runs and solos as if his banjo were a Stradivarius violin). So while she played and sang a ‘30s tune called “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” he was all over the neck, complimenting and augmenting her chords. On Doc Watson’s “Am I Born to Die,” Washburn sang but did not play; Fleck was her dazzling accompanist. He lingered in the upper ranges; his instrument sounded like a harp.

Washburn herself is a force of nature. Warm and easygoing onstage, she sang Appalachian songs, blues and even several numbers in Chinese, and it felt as if we (the audience) were sitting on her front porch, listening to our two most talented musician friends playing for us.

The first set ended, in fact, with a “porch” rendition of “Keys to the Kingdom,” with all amplification removed. Washburn and Fleck left their little semicircle of banjos, microphones and chairs to stand downstage center, right in front of the crowd. She invited a call-and-response, which everyone in the house (apparently) complied with.

It was that kind of a concert.

Fleck performed an extended Flecktones medley, solo, and it might have been the most amazing eight minutes I’ve ever seen and heard on a Savannah Music Festival stage. He also played highlights from The Impostor, his concerto for banjo and symphony orchestra.

For the encore, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the first couple of banjo brought their 10-month-old son, Juno, onstage. As Washburn held him and sang, the little guy bopped up and down.

And Daddy, who was standing alongside playing indescribably cool banjo, just beamed at him.

At that moment, we were all one big, happy family, united by music.

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