When Bela Fleck, the banjo god, and Abigail Washburn, a banjo virtuoso and his wife, share a stage, it’s hard to decide what’s more rewarding: the humor or the music.
Both were in abundance Monday night at the Guthrie Theater, where the couple made their second Twin Cities joint appearance, this time to promote their second duo album, “Echo in the Valley.”
Washburn walked onstage and realized she’d left behind the banjo she needed for the very first song. She then rubbed her obviously pregnant stomach to explain her situation.
Later, she talked about how time has flown with their 4½-year-old son. In practically the same breath, she mentioned how quickly things have happened since she attended the 20th reunion of Edina High School two years ago. She asked how many Edina people were in the house. After hearing a smattering of applause, she said: “I definitely put a bunch of you on the guest list, so I hope you’d come.”
Then Fleck asked how many banjo players were in the house; the response was not nearly as loud.
Fleck, who has performed many times in the Twin Cities in various contexts, played a variety of instruments on Monday, from a cello banjo to a banjo ukulele. Washburn essayed a few different banjos as well – and did the singing.
She told a wonderful story about going to West Virginia to learn an old Appalachia tune “in a hot tub in a holler from Jenny Hoffer.” And she offered the song, “Bright Morning Stars,” a cappella – and without microphone – with a hint of hiccup in her voice and a pinch of churchy pain. It was gorgeous, the perfect modern twist on an old-timey tune.
Another highlight was the instrumental medley of “Sally in the Garden,” ‘Big Country” and “Molly Put the Kettle On,” which featured some fancy finger picking and intricate interaction between these two players who are clearly in sync with one another.
Another treat was the traditional bluegrass number “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.” For this piece, Washburn played an upright banjo bass that Fleck had purchased in upstate New York (he showed her the huge instrument on FaceTime before buying it). And Fleck, who had left the stage beforehand to fetch his slide, returned with a salt-and-pepper shaker as a surrogate slide.
The couple turned this bluegrass selection into a blues with lots of smiles and laughter, and sure enough if Fleck didn’t season the song with his shaker slide to the delight of the near capacity crowd.
Then it was time for intermission, with Fleck promising that anyone who bought a copy of “Echo in the Valley” (CD or vinyl) would be eligible for an end-of-the-concert raffle of a banjo ukulele.
There may never be a stage rush at a banjo concert but there sure was a mob at the merchandise table at intermission.
(I left at intermission to attend Dessa’s rare concert at the Dakota Jazz Club.)