It’s not every day that you hear Béla Fleck’s breakneck banjo accompanied by vocals—unless, of course, you live with Béla Fleck. Where the Flecktones have made their bones over the years with purely instrumental bluegrass, Béla himself has built a family with Abigail Washburn, an accomplished singer and banjo player from Minnesota.
The Grammy-winning couple returned a nearly-eight month hiatus—following the birth of their daughter Phoebe—with a charming performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall in early December. Through nearly two hours in Westwood, Abigail regaled a rapt crowd with tales sung and told alike as she and Bela strummed away on their respective banjos. The duo plucked from a catalogue both personal and borrowed. They opened the show with a customized rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, sprinkled in the traditional folk song “Bright Morning Star”, offered a more contemplative take on “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, nodded to their self-titled debut album, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, with “Little Birdie”; and delighted the crowd with a half-acoustic encore of long-standing spirituals “I’ve Got the Keys to the Kingdom” and “Divine Bell”.
The talented duo also took turns showing off their skills on their own, be it Béla stinging his strings to no vocals or Abigail taking her soft yet captivating voice out for a walk a cappella. Abigail even flexed multilingual knowledge with “Song of the Traveling Daughter”—a play on a traditional Chinese poem called “Song of the Traveling Son”—in which she sang in Chinese and narrated in English.
By and large, though, Béla and Abigail picked up where they’d left off with a heavy dose of tracks from their latest album, 2017’s Echo in the Valley. Abigail sang sweetly to their children in “If I Could Talk to a Younger Me”, acknowledged the plight of Syrian refugees in “Over the Divide”, put a pep in their steps with “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, struck a more somber note in “Bloomin’ Rose” and clog danced to “Take Me to Harlan.”
All the while, Abigail sprinkled in stories of her cultural trips at home and abroad, the origins of her and Béla’s relationship, and plenty of dry Midwestern jokes. Béla, of course, barely spoke at all.
Then again, with skills like his, you don’t need to say much. But if you’ve got pipes (and digits) like Abigail’s in the offing, you’ve got a grand opportunity to elevate melodies with the power that beautifully sung words afford.