Béla Fleck, widely recognized as one of the world’s most proficient and technically skilled banjo players, will be performing with his wife, clawhammer banjo specialist, singer, and songwriter Abigail Washburn, at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center at the high school on Wednesday, April 15.
The Vineyard has hosted skilled banjo players in the past, like Richie Stearns, Jake Shepps, and the Old Crow Medicine Show, but this performance is a unique opportunity to see, here on the Island, a superb banjo picker, songwriter, and composer, and one of the world’s most celebrated musicians. The show is produced by Phil daRosa’s The Print Shop Presents (TPS), and was rescheduled from April 14 due to the annual town meetings.
In his mid-50s, Mr. Fleck has been experimenting with his musical sound since he was given his first banjo by his grandfather at the age of 15. He spent his childhood in New York and moved to Boston after high school, where he developed his skills playing the streets. After performing with several other bands he eventually joined the influential New Grass Revival, and later formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988. The Flecktones was an instrumental group whose music was primarily a fusion of bluegrass, jazz, and rock.
Mr. Fleck is a master of many genres, from bluegrass and newgrass to rock, jazz, and classical, and he has recorded duets with notable musicians from each genre. He has played with musicians from across the world, in every continent, and in the process he’s won 15 Grammy awards and accumulated over 30 nominations. He has been nominated in more categories than any other musician — across country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition, and arrangement. Mr. Fleck has shared Grammy wins with Asleep at the Wheel, Alison Brown, and Edgar Meyer.
His most recent album is a 2014 collaboration with his wife entitled Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn (Rounder Records). Prior to that he composed and recorded a classical concerto for banjo on an album titled The Imposter.
The multitalented Ms. Washburn, born in Illinois, is an accomplished banjo player and songwriter in her own right, and a singer who specializes in American roots tunes with a folksy voice that ranges from haunting to the sublime. She has drawn critical acclaim for her solo albums, and has worked in folk musical diplomacy in China, where she taught and toured. She speaks Mandarin, which she studied in college, and has recorded and written songs in Chinese.
On a 2005 trip to China with cellist Ben Sollee, Mr. Fleck, and Grammy-nominated fiddler Casey Driessen, Ms. Washburn and friends called themselves the Sparrow Quartet, and the journey resulted in an EP, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet. At the request of the U.S. government, the Sparrow Quartet toured Tibet in 2006 and performed in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.
Ms. Washburn also volunteered to help with Sichuan quake relief in China in 2008, and produced a benefit EP as a fundraiser the following year, with Shanghai Restoration Project’s David Liang, called Afterquake.
In 2013 Ms. Washburn debuted her first theatrical performance piece in New York, Post-American Girl, about an American girl coming of age in a swiftly changing global order. It featured folk arts of China and Appalachia in shadow puppetry, sacred harp song, and traditional music, as well as new musical compositions.
For their latest album, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, the couple recorded in their home and produced the record themselves, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts. The pair, who were married in 2009, include several songs on the album that were no doubt influenced by their experiences as new parents to their son, Juno, who will be 2 next month. While appearing on PBS’s Tavis Smiley show last year, Mr. Fleck said his then 8-month-old had not taken up the banjo yet, but was learning to play keyboards.
Some proceeds from Wednesday’s concert will benefit the Island Collaborative, a nonprofit established to facilitate collaborations between Islanders and Island groups including businesses, schools, local government, and individuals. Additionally, the concert is sponsored by the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, which is offering a package-rate overnight special including tickets to the show.
Mr. daRosa said he hopes to produce more shows with well-known artists in the future. “I’m working heavily on MV Sound No. 2 right now. We are in fundraising mode, and I’m putting out feelers to bigger artists to participate.” The first Martha’s Vineyard Sound Festival, a two-day celebration of music, food, and culture at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs in July of last year, was a critical success, according to Mr. daRosa. “I’m hoping that this year will be two days full of fun. We have a lot of great ideas. We plan to incorporate yoga at the park, and are teaming up with The Yard on some dance ideas. It will again benefit the Island Collaborative.”
An Evening with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Wednesday, April 15, 6 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard High School Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 day of show, and may be purchased online from the TBS website, tpspresents.com, or by calling 800-838-3006.