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“The King and Queen of Banjo”, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn at St. Cecilia Music Center

St. Cecilia Music Center will bring husband and wife duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn to Royce Auditorium on Friday,  February 23. This will be the duo’s first appearance together in Grand Rapids.  Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn have been called “the king and queen of the banjo.” On stage, Fleck & Washburn will perform pieces from their 2016 Grammy-winning self-titled debut album, as well as their new record, Echo in the Valley.

Béla Fleck is a fifteen-time Grammy Award winner who has taken the instrument across multiple genres, and Abigail Washburn is a singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjo player who re-radicalized it by combining it with Far East culture and sounds. Echo in the Valley is the follow up to Fleck and Washburn’s acclaimed, self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album.  “This time around, the mission was to take our double banjo combination of three finger and clawhammer styles to the next level and find things to do together that we had not done before, says Fleck.  “We’re expressing different emotions through past techniques and going to deeper places.

 Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn tickets are $45 and $50 and can be purchased by calling St. Cecilia Music Center at 616-459-2224 or visiting the box office at 24 Ransom Ave. NE. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.scmc-online.org.  A post-concert party with a cash bar will be offered to all ticket-holders.

The Acoustic Café Series

The Acoustic Café Series, in partnership with the syndicated radio show of the same name, will round out the season with banjo gurus and singers Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn; the band Asleep at the Wheel, and singer/songwriter, banjo and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens co-founder of the Grammy award-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Cathy Holbrook states, “Since its inception in the 2015-16 season the Acoustic Café Folk Series has expanded its offerings and brought some of today’s up and coming artists, as well as some of the veterans of the singer/songwriter genre.

SCMC formed a partnership three years ago with the syndicated radio show Acoustic Café and its host Rob Reinhart. The Ann Arbor based radio program is syndicated to over 100 commercial and non-commercial stations throughout the country and airs locally in Grand Rapids on WYCE on Friday mornings. The series at SCMC features touring singer/songwriter folk/Americana musicians in concert and also presents the opportunity for a live taping with the artists and Rob Reinhart while visiting SCMC.

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn Bio

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, “the king and queen of the banjo” (Paste Magazine), have a musical partnership like no other. Béla Fleck is a fifteen-time Grammy Award winner who has taken the instrument across multiple genres, and Abigail Washburn is a singer-songwriter and claw hammer banjo player who re-radicalized it by combining it with Far East culture and sounds.

Fleck has the virtuosic, jazz-to-classical ingenuity of an iconic instrumentalist and composer with bluegrass roots. His collaborations range from his ground-breaking standard-setting ensemble Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, to a staggeringly broad array of musical experiments. From writing concertos for full symphony orchestra, exploring the banjo’s African roots, to jazz duos with Chick Corea, many tout that Béla Fleck is the world’s premier banjo player.

Washburn has the earthy sophistication of a postmodern, old-time singer-songwriter who has drawn critical acclaim for her solo albums.

With one eye on using the banjo to showcase Americas rich heritage and the other pulling the noble instrument from its most familiar arena into new and unique realms, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s second album “Echo in the Valley” is simultaneously familiar and wildly innovative. “Some of the most interesting things in the world come together in strange and unique ways and show our diversity,” reflects Fleck. “The banjo is just one of those things.  It’s a great example of how the world can combine things and create surprising hybrids,” a reference to the ancestral African roots of the banjo combining with Scotch-Irish music in Appalachia.

The results are fascinating, especially considering their strict rules for recording:  all sounds must be created by the two of them, the only instruments used are banjos (they have seven between them, ranging from a ukulele to an upright bass banjo), and they must be able to perform every recorded song live.

Fleck and Washburn met at a square dance and began playing music together a dozen years ago, beginning with the Sparrow Quartet.  They married shortly thereafter and became parents to a cute little tot.  They’ve been touring the globe as a duo for years, almost nonstop, but for each other’s performances with various other musical iterations:  Béla with the likes of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Chick Corea and Chris Thile, among many others, and Abigail with Wu Fei (a master of the ancient 21-string Chinese zither), The Wu-Force and Uncle Earl.

As the story goes, Béla was struck by the sound of Mr. Earl Scruggs’ banjo when hearing the Beverly Hillbillies theme song.  He got hold of a banjo, took his musical namesakes (Béla for Bartok, Anton for Weburn, Leos for Yanecek) to heart, and has since continuously broken new musical ground with his instrument.  Fleck has the distinction of being nominated in more categories than any other instrumentalist in Grammy history, and has brought his banjo through scorching hot newgrass, traditional bluegrass, otherworldly funk, modern jazz, African originals, transatlantic Celtic, and classical realms, with two self-composed banjo concertos to his name (The Impostor and Juno Concerto), with a third one in the works.

Abigail was similarly jolted into life as a banjoist, but for her it was hearing Doc Watson perform “Shady Grove.” “I was proud to discover that I came from a country where you can hear that ancient sound – from Africa, from Scotland, from Ireland – all mixed up in this beautiful new sound, with those ancient tones in it,” She reflects.  “The ancient sounds of our culture remind us who we are, and in them, we see a constellation of who we are becoming.”

Washburn has imbued this philosophy in all aspects of her work, from the string band Uncle Earl to her acclaimed solo albums, ‘Song of the Traveling Daughter’ and ‘City of Refuge’, and her semi-autobiographical theatrical work, ‘Post-American Girl’, as well as in her musical ambassadorship with China, a country with which she has a long, profound history.  Abigail is deftly following in the footsteps of the founding mothers of folk and has become a prominent voice of old-time in our time while bringing to light those ancient sounds of American and Far East cultures in new and exciting ways.

Their Newest Album, Echo in the Valley

With the exception of a few restyled traditional tunes, all tracks on Echo in the Valley are originals and are largely co-written – a different creative approach from their first album, where songs were mostly his or hers. “This time, we really wanted to truly write together,” Béla says.  “We spent a lot of our time on the lyrics, deciding what we want the songs to communicate, both literally and under the surface. ‘Echo in the Valley’ reflects relevant issues while simultaneously connecting us to our past through wild re-imaginings of traditional pieces.  New original tunes range from ‘Over the Divide,’ a song inspired by Hans Breuer, who worked to ferry Syrian refugees to safety, to ‘Blooming Rose,’ inspired by Native American voices and lamenting a continual distancing from nature. ‘Don’t Let It Bring You’ is an emphatic mantra for hard times.  With I don’t wanna cry, cry, cry, oh, ‘Let it Go’ is ultimately about release from the pain of transition, surrendering to growth.  The song acknowledges that we must let our children grow up; the concession that youthful innocence will one day give way to adult cares and worries.

On the album, Clarence Ashley’s ‘My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’ has been turned into a rural blues, and Béla’s well-known piece ‘Big Country’ is framed by the traditional Appalachian tunes ‘Sally in the Garden’ and ‘Molly Put the Kettle On,’ a medley Béla and Abigail performed hundreds of times on stage before recording. “‘Big Country’ is one of the most beautiful melodies I have ever heard played on the banjo,” says Abigail, who takes the lead on this version.  “Come All You Coal Miners; is the point-of-view of coal-miner advocate Sarah Ogan Gunning, whose passages remain poignant and powerful today. “This song came from a very emotional, mother-driven, daughter-driven, wife-driven place, and there are not many songs throughout history from that perspective, so I am incredibly moved by her,” says Washburn.

Béla and Abigail’s creative process on Echo in the Valley is sonically made manifest in the record’s major themes of harmony, empathy and surrender.  As Abigail explains, the intense, intimate collaboration that Fleck and Washburn put forward on this project required “a spirit of staying strong, but also a willingness to release into the other’s ideas to create something new and possibly something bigger and more beautiful than one could do on one’s own.”