A few thoughts after seeing Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the first couple of the banjo, in concert Wednesday at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul.

  • Calling Fleck a virtuoso doesn’t do him justice. His technique and expressiveness in a variety of styles – from bluegrass to Malian to hair-band rock – were stunning.
  • Washburn is a gifted banjo picker, too, and the way their instruments interweaved seemed effortless but was obviously meticulously and smartly conceived.
  • The repartee between husband and wife was priceless. Washburn, an Edina High School grad, was a chatty charmer, infusing the evening with all kinds of Minnesota references to choirs, weather and her grandma from Sanborn, Minn. Fleck, a native New Yorker, was a wonderful counterpoint, adding a dry (or sarcastic) quip here and there. After she complained about some little thing in her early life, Fleck gave her flak: “It must have been tough growing up in Edina.” Her earned a fist-bump from his wife for that zinger.
  • Washburn manifested striking versatility as a singer, covering everything from spirituals and old-time to murder ballads (loved her original “Shotgun Blues”) and a Chinese tune. She also did some nifty clog dancing.
  • The banjo players offered several instrumentals, including fiddle tunes on banjos, blues from Mali and Tanzania, and “The Final Countdown,” the 1980s hair-band classic by a band known simply as Europe. For said cover, Washburn got into the spirit by putting on a headband and Fleck donned a shaggy blond wig that could have qualified him for the fourth runner-up in a Dee Snider look-alike contest. 
    (See below)
  • Although on the surface the concert threatened to be heavy on bluegrass and old-time music (as heard on this year's self-titled joint album), Fleck and Washburn deserve a "Bravo" for the diversity in the repertoire. Who knew so many special sounds would be shared with just two banjos?
  • Given the chemistry, spontaneity, humor, and killer musical chops between the two stars (not to mention Washburn’s deep understanding of Minnesota essences), the two-hour, two-set concert could be taken for an audition for Fleck and Washburn to become the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion” if Garrison Keillor decides to retire soon. The idea of replacing him with a married couple would certainly avoid comparisons between him and a singular new host – and he’d probably be flattered that it took two people to fill his shoes.  

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