Live review: Abigail Washburn at the Getty Center
On Saturday night, rain drizzled down on Los Angeles, and millions of invisible text messages, tweets, Instagrams and uploads traveled to and from satellites above. At the Getty Center, singer and banjo player Abigail Washburn and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch stood front stage in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium sans amplification or electricity and shouted and stomped out a gospel song called “Keys to the Kingdom,” about a place far beyond the orbiting marvels on high.
A rural hymn that stretches back nearly a century, “Keys” conveys passages from the Bible about the invincibility of faith — enduring, pre-Internet messages that made it from then to now effectively via human voice. It’s a song that Washburn, 32, knows well: Over the years, she’s recorded it not only as a solo artist but also as a member of the old-time groups Uncle Earl and the Sparrow Quartet (which also features her husband, banjo player Béla Fleck).
Continuing to tour in support of her solo album “City of Refuge” from last year, Washburn proved herself not only a remarkable messenger of musical sounds from the past — most specifically, the claw hammer-style of banjo playing — but also an illuminating entertainer willing to push old-soul ideas into the present. Over the course of the night, her musical partner Welch not only accompanied her on guitar but also added accents of muted trumpet, foot-tapped tambourine, keyboards and a voice sampler that enabled him to create on-the-spot harmonies.
“Bring Me My Queen,” one of the best songs on “City of Refuge,” saw him crafting beautiful layered soundscapes around which Washburn sang of blinding devotion toward someone who “takes all your friends/takes all your lovers/Buries all the bodies in her heart’s cover.”
But much of the magic was delivered via an object, the open-back banjo, that’s as much drum as string instrument — basically a drum head with a neck and five strings. Unlike with either a guitar or in bluegrass-style banjo picking, much of what happened when Washburn got going on her instrument was invisible to everyone but the player. When playing claw hammer style, the back of the middle fingernail strikes the bottom four strings while the thumb hits the top half-string on the upstroke — and all this is hidden behind a curled hand.
This maneuver created a certain mystery. Strange, punctuated acoustic rhythms and eerie drones arrived that seemed to have no visible origin — only to reveal themselves to be a string of hollow tones bouncing out of Washburn’s instrument. That was most evident on one of the night’s many highlights, “Dreams of Nectar.” Washburn and Welch opened the song using only banjo and muted trumpet, but expanded it sonically when Welch dropped over to his keyboard and effects board to create ethereal whispers and harmonies that swirled around Washburn’s banjo.
Washburn isn’t a flashy player, though she’s truly gifted, and she’s equally concerned with harnessing her instrument for texture and surprise as for melody and licks. She repeatedly showed her appreciation for the banjo’s percussive abilities and for its history in rural folk music as a tool of rhythm used as much to drive and meander the beat as to weave melody through it. Her sense of the banjo’s journey was reinforced when she dedicated a song to bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who died last week. Before starting “Devine Bell,” she recalled playing the song for Scruggs at his home a few miles from where she lives in Nashville.
Later, Washburn stepped to an empty plot of stage and did some percussive foot-stomping and clogging.
Washburn’s interests extend beyond an appreciation of the language and song of America. She previously lived in China, and she has a strong affection for the country that works its way into her music via Eastern tunings and the occasional Mandarin lyric.
Prior to beginning “Taiyang Chulai,” a traditional Sichuan folk song about the sun rising and living in the moment, she told a story about singing it to a Chinese cab driver, only to have him pull over and insist that she step outside the car and re-sing it with proper arm and hand motions. During the rendition of the song at the Getty, she lifted her arms just as the driver had shown her each time the Mandarin-lyricked chorus returned.
By the time Washburn and Welch were finished, the sun was long gone. As the crowd exited the auditorium and poured out onto the Getty terrace, the lights of Los Angeles rolled out to the horizon. With the smart phones rebooted, the digital streams returned, but few of the messages that arrived could possibly have been as eternal as those we’d just received.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Banjo player and vocalist Abigail Washburn on stage at the Getty Center's Harold M. Williams Auditorium Saturday evening March 31 2012. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.