Review: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn at the Southbank Centre

She hails from North Carolina, and her name’s Becca Stevens. She’s the support act for virtuosic husband-and-wife duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. She plays a brief six-song set, culminating in a stunning cover of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out; she vocalises the contour of the guitar riff, singing the lyrics slowly, beautifully. Her chilling vocal shivers its way down the audience’s collective spine as we sing her off the stage.

Bela 1
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Stevens also delivers a gorgeous stripped-back cover of Frank Ocean’s Thinkin’ Bout You, free of the perfunctory trappings of the backing band on her EP. It’s recognisably a pop melody, rather than a folk or jazz one.

But for two-thirds of her set, as she plays her original songs, she isn’t this powerful. In voice and style, think Liz Phair plus Nic Jones, but without either’s flair for melody. The original she seems most proud of – Both Still Here – is, unfortunately, the least melodic of her songs; worse, it’s filled with second-hand philosophies. “Life’s but a moment’s dream | Dreamt just for us, or so it seems” practically springs fully formed from the Grateful Dead songbook. Her best original, ‘Canyon Dust’, is the last one she plays. It’s in the Appalachian folk vein, but is recognisably her work, blessed with a chorus that begins to soar. It’s pretty, fitfully.

None of this nay-saying is anything to worry about; Joni Mitchell’s debut wasn’t exactly chock-full of memorable melodies either. Stevens should either further sculpt her craft and hire a new producer to flatter rather than obscure her talent, or release an album of covers. I’d look forward to either result.

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***

Béla and Abigail open with Railroad. Abigail kicks off with her typically upbeat clawhammer picking, while Béla occasionally pitches in with a sustained bass strum. Her banjo is wood-rimmed; his is steel-rimmed, glinting in our eyes. His fingers roam up and down the fret, quickly and imperiously. Take it seriously he does, but he never lets it take him that way. He’s quietly enjoying himself as she sings.

Abigail handles audience banter and vocal duties. Before settling into Banjo Pickin’ Girl, essentially a riff on Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad, she asks us for words that rhyme with London. “Onion!” “Bunion!” “Dungeon!” come the responses. “Hoe-down!” someone repeatedly, desperately proposes, to no avail – Béla settles for “undone”.

Soon we are treated to Ride to U. Abigail plays a semi-arpeggio while Béla picks, his notes floating in the air like teardrops. Abigail is in a long skirt and cardigan, and if her face weren’t so young she’d look grandmotherly. She plays Taiyang Chulai, one of her Chinese songs – primarily a vehicle for the wonderful sustain of her medium-rich voice, itself a vehicle for her fluent Mandarin.

The duo switches between political polemics (Come All You Coal Miners contains the phrase “dirty capitalist system” unironically) and solo instrumentals almost without us noticing. The seventh track, an instrumental, features Béla soloing on a banjo-ukulele. Dazzling speed and memorable melody are executed with sublime facility; insistently, consistently inventive, he could mesmerise for hours on end. Occasionally, his foot taps and his head bobs. When this happens, he resembles a particularly avuncular insect.

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The duo’s rendition of Shotgun Blues, a “feminist murder balled” in which the female doesn’t die, goes down pretty well with the audience. Naturally, to evince the mortality theme, Abigail beats the percussive skin of her banjo every couple of seconds. Béla also plays more percussively, seeming at first to yank at the strings while tapping softly at his own banjo’s skin, skimming his fingernail off the steel to make a disconcerting, muffled ‘ping’ sound.

We’re halfway through the gig. To everyone’s delight, surprise guest John Paul Jones, who produced Waterloo, TN (Washburn’s 2007 album with her outfit Uncle Earl), strolls onstage with a mandolin to accompany the pair. The three virtuosi play What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?, an old Washington Phillips song. Jones is typically modest, and doesn’t once open his mouth except to smile. He’s onstage for less than five minutes.

A couple of instrumentals next – first, a fiddle tune featuring a claw-hammer solo by Abigail. As she plays, Béla discusses her style – West Africa-derived, with the emphasis on rhythm and backing rather than soloing. Clawhammerers are, Béla opines drolly, “more well-adjusted and mature” than three-finger-pickers like himself.

Nonetheless he soon filigrees another dynamic solo, a tribute to the late Bill Keith. Abigail walks up and occasionally tweaks one of his tuning pegs, humorously bending the last note of each of his runs.

The set finishes with a couple of gospel blues songs – the vocal-heavy And Am I Born To Die, featuring between-verse infilling by Béla, and Hear It Ring – a call-and-response the duo conducts with them calling and us responding, natch.

When the pair comes back on after leaving to a standing ovation, they deliver one of the evening’s highlights: New South Africa, a Flecktones 1995 tune written shortly after Mandela was voted in. It’s a celebratory piece; the jubilance of the double-banjo arrangement is infectious, the clawhammer/picking collaboration reaching peak fruition once again. Dionysus’s picking grows febrile as Apollo’s remains calm. Somewhere in the blend of notes we catch quotes of Appalachian melodic patterns.

The pair aren’t done pushing boundaries just yet. This is globalism at its most natural and subconscious.

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