Washburn, Fleck bring their multicultural banjos to Egg

Abigail Washburn will bring her banjo and her new group, The Sparrow Quartet, to The Egg tonight.

Categories: Life & Arts

Hear the one about the woman who drove to the store with a banjo in the back seat? Inside, she realized, “Oh, no. I forgot to lock the car.” Horrified that someone might steal the instrument, she ran outside and found . . . two banjos.

Banjoist Abigail Washburn delighted in telling this joke, whose punchline suggests that one banjo is bad but two are worse, possibly even a crime, because her Sparrow Quartet actually has two banjos. If the unconventional band earns attention because Bela Fleck plays the other banjo, it’s Washburn’s multi-cultural concept, and its two banjos may be less startling than the way Washburn yodels — in Chinese.

On the band’s new album “Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet” and onstage tonight at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany), Washburn plays banjo accompaniment for her voice (singing more in English than in Chinese), while Fleck drives musical border patrols positively dizzy trying to sort out the jazz from the rock from the funk from the classical from the Chinese folk music.

“There’s a beautiful space between all the traditions, and it’s symbiotic,” Washburn explained. “It’s comfortable even if it’s not familiar,” she added. “When you allow spaces between things, that’s when creative playing can unfold; and two banjos can talk and sing together.”

A master of unlikely combinations, Washburn invented her own academic program as the first major in Asian Studies and Western Philosophy at Colorado College. “I pieced things together myself,” she said of the program that took her to China, where she studied folk music in Shanghai and Chengdu, the area devastated by the recent earthquake. (She worries that friends there haven’t yet found missing family members.)

Her Sparrow Quartet formed when Nashville musician friends heard she planned to perform in China and asked to join her. However, being in Nashville and organizing a tour of China seemed equally unlikely in her prior career as a Beijing- and Vermont-based lobbyist. Even then, however, she sang in two choirs but considered music a hobby, not a career path. She didn’t pick up the banjo until friends in Vermont band needed a last-minute fill-in.

Soon, she gravitated to Nashville, formed the all-women old-timey band Uncle Earl and started hanging out with fellow acoustic players, including Fleck, at Friday night jams. “I’m rooted in old-time banjo and all that came from watching Doc Watson play clawhammer banjo on ‘Shady Grove’,” she said. “I use the banjo to accompany my singing, and I enjoy how the sustain of the notes on the banjo help accompany me.”

She added: “Bela [Fleck] is a great virtuosic player; he’s rooted in bluegrass and jazz,” recalling that he jumped at the chance to perform in China with her. Fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee (longtime duo partner who has opened shows here with her for Doc Watson and Chris Thile) complete the Sparrow Quartet.

“My conceptual thing comes out in songs, in big ideas of melodies and lyrics,” she said, “but it’s very much a collaboration.”

She explained that in creating music for the quartet, “I often came in with concepts and the group really developed the direction for most of the songs. A few were written completely and just needed some arranging, but most were crying out for heavy [group] composition.” There’s plenty of improvisation, too. “We leave large openings for playing to go somewhere we don’t necessarily expect,” she said. “It’s exciting to go to a place beyond what was planned.”

She said, “Fans come back to see us on our second time through a place and say ‘Wow, that was different from last time, and different from the record.’ ”

On its own, the record is pretty different, starting with an overture mash-up that sounds like the result of a fearlessly curious rummage through a record store with a good — but randomly scrambled — ethnic music section. As surprising and ingenious as “Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet” is — and it’s wonderfully extreme in both departments — it is the opposite of a rude banjo joke, although some of it is quite funny.

The skill level is very serious; in fact it’s over the moon. Probably its most conventional tune, “Strange Things,” which she learned from a 1952 recording, begins as a blues but goes elsewhere — somewhere unplanned? — in a hurry. There’s a Kazakh dance number, a collision between a Fleck funk riff and a Sichuan Province folk tune, and a fine fiddle feature based on a song Washburn learned from a Beijing cabbie and sings in Chinese.

It may be the most spectacularly unexpected” album of the year, among its most fearlessly conceived and beautifully played.

Show time for the Sparrow Quartet with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, banjos; cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Driessen; is 8 p.m. tonight. Admission is $28. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.


Want something different than the cozy complexity of the Sparrow Quartet tonight at The Egg? Mountain Jam at Hunter Mountain (Route 23A in the Catskills) has the jams for you this weekend: music on two stages, plus camping.

Today, it starts like this. East stage: Gov’t Mule, Umphrey’s McGee, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Pete Francis, Buzz Universe, and Dark Meat. West stage: Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Jimmy Weider, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and Ratboy. Late night: Galactic, Lotus, and DJ Lady Verse.

Saturday offers even more. East stage: Gov’t Mule, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ray LaMontagne, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Ingrid Michaelson. West stage: Citizen Cope, Jackie Greene, JJ Grey & Mofro, O’Death, and Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned. Late night: Dark Star Orchestra, Pnuma Trio, and DJ Lady Verse.

Sunday may be best of all. East stage: Bob Weir & RatDog, Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road, Drive-By Truckers, and the Felice Brothers. West stage: Medeski, Martin, Scofield & Wood; Dr. Dog; and the Larry McCray Band.

Picks: Gov’t Mule — it’s their festival, and they’ll want to prove it. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings — the band Amy Winehouse borrowed, this time with the singer they deserve and vice-versa. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, and Galactic — both bands were knockouts at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Bob Weir & RatDog — they were really strong at the Palace last fall. Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road — they played a fantastic show at The Egg last summer. The Felice Brothers — young local guys from the Catskills in the gig of their lives, so far.

Day of show three-day tickets are $149.50, with camping $169.50. Day of show single-day tickets are $94.50 Saturday, $84.50 Sunday.

Additional service and parking fees apply. Children under 10 free with paying adult. Visit www.mountainjam.com

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