Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn – Echo In The Valley
Rounder -17 November 2017
As readers of this site will doubtless know, these two-star banjo players have a hell of a history between them. Short version: after many years pursuing parallel careers, they came together in 2005, worked together in The Sparrow Quartet, then in 2009 became a married couple, and since around 2013 have also been fully fledged touring partners as a duo. Béla and Abigail finally released a joint album, one of a deceptively plain eponymous title (reviewed here), and it earned them the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. And I’d not be at all surprised if their followup duo album, Echo In The Valley, earns them the same award all over again this year, for it’s absolutely stunning.
OK, in a sense it’s more of the same – in the broadest and most superficial of terms, it can be undersold to the uninitiated or closed-minded as three-quarters-of-an-hour of nothing but banjos and vocals (well, for the most part I mean just Abigail’s voice). But just hang on in there, trust me. Sure, to the outsider, the prospect of a whole album of banjo duets might still seem way beyond the pale, but this new album, like its predecessor, is honestly 100% recommendable in every respect. I’ll readily subscribe to a paraphrase of Béla’s oft-quoted view “we’re banjo players, and that should be enough” – i.e. when there are banjo players of this calibre, then that’s gonna be more than enough to keep me interested – and yeah, happy. Surely, you say, a banjo is just a banjo? Now c’mon, no jokes please – for here we’re treated to the connoisseur’s selection, no fewer than seven different vintage instruments, including a restored upright 1905 banjo bass – each instrument proving fascinatingly different in timbre. But you really don’t have to be a banjo nerd to appreciate these differences. (Same principle applies to guitars of course – and does anyone ever question that?)
Think too, of the wealth of experience on display here. For Béla’s a totally all-around virtuoso progressive instrumentalist of considerable ingenuity; he’s been many times nominated, in all manner of categories, and is proven master of any playing style from bluegrass to newgrass, jazz and classical, while also resolutely open to all manner of cross-cultural experimentation including exploration of the banjo’s African roots. Often regarded as the world’s premier banjo player, Béla’s also guested on innumerable albums and sessions in addition to recording his own albums and leading his own outfits including the celebrated Flecktones ensemble. Béla’s all-embracing musical aesthetic makes him the ideal partner in every sense for Abigail, who’s a fantastically inventive banjoist in her own right who, like Béla but in a fully complementary and harmonious way, strikes a keen balance between accomplished technique and emotional response.
Abigail’s also a critically acclaimed “post-modern old-time” singer and songwriter, erstwhile member of the band Uncle Earl (and founder member of the above-mentioned Sparrow Quartet), and a respected musical diplomat who’s spent time studying oriental, in particular Chinese music (and indeed also plays in a duo with guzheng master Wu Fei). Abigail also holds the trump card of possessing an amazing singing voice – light and wispy in character, but boasting a massive range and enviable flexibility and a totally seductive tone that brings a tingle to the spine as well as the heart. Though their individual musical personalities are distinctive and distinct, Béla and Abigail come together with a truly symbiotic front-porch sensibility that’s strictly personal, all their own, one that’s pretty much unique in roots music; it embodies a refreshingly inclusive, highly intimate though minimalist approach that draws the listener in and never lets go. Just listen closely, and you’ll find the intricate yet spacious quality of the interplay between the instruments immensely rewarding.
Just as with the earlier album, you couldn’t envisage a greater musical variety or fluidity within the often shapeshifting scenario each of the eleven tracks presents. Over half of these are joint compositions, each idiomatically covering “approved” ground – yet playfully, and with an infectious willingness to take the music gently but poignantly into unexpected territories and down unusual paths within any song or tune. Not only do the couple reimagine old-time Appalachian music, but they also invest it with today’s concerns. Pick almost any of the original songs, and you could envisage it a long-lost artefact, with the resonant lyrics carrying universal application beyond the purely regional reference points.
There’s so much going on in these open-hearted and minimally luxuriant textures: from the eerily jubilant gospellish hollerings of Over The Divide to the weird percussive dance step backdrop of the plaintive, soulful (yet disturbed) Take Me To Harlan; from the frantically animated tribal mantra of Don’t Let It Bring You Down to the strangely structured, determined declaration of love Hello Friend. Oriental inflections and progressions inform the melodies of several songs including album closer Blooming Rose. There are two songs that could be regarded as kinda lullabies: on one hand Let It Go, where the deep-throated tonal extravagances of 10-string and cello banjos underpin Abigail’s whispered, hushed entreaty punctuated by soothing high harmonies, and on the other hand, the T. Clarence Ashley-authored sinuous bluesy slow-drag My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains. Then there’s the rippling, thoughtful homily If I Could Talk To A Younger Me, contrasted with the positive-thinking drive of On This Winding Road, and a fine cover of Sarah Ogan Gunning’s powerful admonition Come All You Coal Miners. Smack in the middle of the disc we find the lone instrumental cut, a stupendous near-eight-minute medley that frames Béla’s well-known tune Big Country with a pair of traditional Appalachian tunes – yet it proves so much more than it sounds from that description, not in any way a routine stitch-job, but a really intense, involving, organic progression.
This Echo In The Valley continues to reverberate long after the record has finished. It’s compulsive listening, not just for Abigail’s ear-stopping vocal work but also because everything’s all so darned musical. Although it’s a display of – and a triumph of – technique, this doesn’t ever leave you cold, instead positively warms and energises brain and body. It represents an affectionate and genuinely responsive dialogue between two musicians whose bond is so absolute, who so clearly, permanently, inspire each other to ever greater heights of music-making.
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