Folk music was the main course at Blue Note Napa last Saturday night. The headliners were 17-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck, widely considered the finest banjo player in the world, and his singing, clogging, banjo-picking wife, Abigail Washburn. Armed with seven banjos, their scene-stealing three-and-a-half year-old son Juno, and a packed house including a few musical celebrities, they lit up the Main Street venue.
As Fleck explained about halfway through the show, he plays the banjo “Scruggs-style,” with picks on his thumb and first two fingers, while Washburn plays “old-time” or “clawhammer,” all downstrokes with no picks, an older technique born in Africa. Together, they are a remarkable instrumental blend, his playing heavy with intricate melodic runs and syncopation, hers with rhythm and percussion.
Their individual stage personas are as different as their playing styles. Washburn is bursting with energy, outgoing and joyful, while Fleck is quiet and self-contained, but sneaky funny, generally by way of a quizzical facial expression toward his partner or the audience, or a well-chosen laconic comment.
With power, vibrato and range up to the soprano register, she digs into an early American repertoire, heavy on blues and gospel, including songs by Clarence “Tom” Ashley (“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”), George Washington Phillips (“What Are They Doing in Heaven Right Now?”) and Sarah Ogan Gunning (Come All You Coal Miners”).
Washburn progressively surprises as they move through the set, one moment speaking and joking and singing in Mandarin, the next up and clogging as she sings “Harlan,” a modern-day Appalachian original composition.
Late in the performance, Washburn and Fleck took advantage of a delighted audience by bringing out their adorable curly-headed son to clog with mom and nicely execute a group bow with mom and dad. We ate up the shtick like it was Ben & Jerry’s.
This was a wonderful show, a likeable couple displaying epic talent in an intimate venue with great sound that, though featuring mostly jazz, is perfect for folk music as well. This fan hopes that Blue Note will continue to expand its bookings beyond the boundaries of jazz, particularly to the rich reservoir of American folk artists.