Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn wow at the Performing Arts Center

The married musicians delight hundreds on Wednesday night.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn light up the stage at the Performing Arts Center. — Photo by Larisa Stinga

Just under 600 Islanders came out to enjoy the music of banjo marvel and 15-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck, who graced the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center (PAC) along with his wife, skilled banjo player, singer and songwriter Abigail Washburn, on Wednesday night.

Before introducing the act, hosts Jess Phaneuf of MVY Radio and Phil DaRosa of The Print Shop (TPS) Presents announced plans for the second annual Martha’s Vineyard Sound Festival, scheduled for Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, July 12, at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs.

The crowd cheered in support of the proposed festival, which will feature acts Ryan Montbleau, Crooked Coast, Parkington Sisters, Mieka Pauley, Dana Williams, Dwight and Nicole, and Lynguistic Civilians, and will bring together local vendors, nonprofits, and artisans in support of the Island Collaborative initiative, a nonprofit that harnesses the efforts of organizations on the Island.

Following the lively introduction, musicians Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn appeared onstage, which had been arranged with two chairs, a stool, several microphones, and seven banjos ranging in size, color, and sound — the instruments that would impressively provide the music for the evening.

The duo began with a rendition of the American folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” with Mr. Fleck on banjo and his wife singing and accompanying him on banjo. Following the first song, the couple thanked the audience and shared some of their experiences and impressions of the Island since their arrival on Monday, including an enjoyable stay at the Harbor View Hotel, the sponsor of the night’s show. “That lighthouse, what?!,” exclaimed Ms. Washburn, in awe of the Edgartown lighthouse.

Almost as entertaining as their performances, both together and solo, were their personal anecdotes and endearing interactions, which allowed the audience a glimpse into their life together.

“Does anyone know if Béla’s been here before?” joked Ms. Washburn to the audience when Mr. Flack was trying to recount his last trip to the Island in the ’70s, “several lives ago.”

The couple also solicited the audience for help with several songs, including a version of “The Banjo Pickin’ Girl” by the Coon Creek Girls, a popular all-girl string band in the Appalachian style of folk music from the 1930s. The song, which includes the chorus “I’m goin’ around this world, baby mine” and features locations like North Carolina and Tennessee, was amended by the couple to include a stop in Martha’s Vineyard. After polling the audience for possible rhymes with our Island’s name, and receiving suggestions including “furthest inward” and “Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Ms. Washburn improvised the version with “goin’ Martha’s Vineyard, baby mine, sure hope they don’t request ‘Freebird.’” The crowd laughed and applauded affectionately, and not without a joking request for the popular Lynyrd Skynyrd song by one bold audience member.

The parents to almost 2-year-old son Juno went on to perform an entirely instrumental original song, “Banjo, Banjo,” which they wrote the summer that their son was born. Ms. Washburn shared their intentions to take that summer off from touring and use the birth of their son to provide “creative time.” They admitted that “Banjo, Banjo” was the only song they had time to write, given the constraints of parenthood, and that they didn’t even have time to write lyrics.

Next up came their song “Ride to You,” from their album Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, which asks, “Where am I gonna go when you’re gone?” followed by a version of the traditional children’s song “Little Birdie,” which Ms. Washburn has taught throughout China, and which also appeared on her album to support the Shanghai Restoration Project, titled Afterquake.

At one point Mr. Fleck joked about the variety of banjos on stage, asking, “Does this banjo make me look fat?” to which his wife replied, “Oh, no, you’re perfect just the way you are.” Mr. Fleck showed off a cello banjo and a fretless banjo that was made by Ms. Washburn’s friend Jordan McConnell of the folk-fusion band the Duhks.

Ms. Washburn went on to sing a solo rendition of Sarah Ogan Gunning’s ode to coal miners in Kentucky, “Come All You Coal Miners.” The song was inspired by their recent show in West Virginia and the community’s recovery from a chemical spill there, and received a roaring round of applause.

Again the the couple shared another personal story during an interlude: The two were pulled over in their hometown of Nashville when Mr. Fleck was driving. Upon the officer examining Mr. Fleck’s ID, he asked the musician, “Who is the greatest banjo player in the world?” When Mr. Fleck answered “Earl Scruggs,” renowned banjo player, friend and mentor to Mr. Fleck, the officer said, “That’s right; drive slower next time.” Mr. Fleck went on to learn that the sergeant in question was Mr. Scruggs’ nephew.

Another treat was listening to Ms. Washburn share her appreciation for Mr. Fleck’s music. When she introduced her husband to play an acoustic set alone, she said, “My favorite way to hear him play.”

Following the introduction, Mr. Fleck went on to wow the audience, sitting atop a stool with his metallic banjo reflecting against the overhead lights of the PAC, his hands dancing across the banjo strings. The audience sat at full attention, watching in awe, some shaking their head in disbelief of his talent, and breaking into almost deafening applause in appreciation. Later in the show he performed another solo acoustic set, to the delight of the audience and especially his wife; when she disclosed she had never heard him play that before. When he confessed it was improvised it became even more impressive.

The couple went on to perform “Keys to the Kingdom” from the Sparrow Quartet EP, an album they recorded with violinist Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee, featuring a mix of old-time music and Chinese lyrics and melodies, inspired by Washburn’s longstanding interest in Chinese culture. Ms. Washburn has spent years studying Chinese, and she treated the audience to some Mandarin exchanges between herself and a fictitious cab driver, leading her husband to divulge that he thinks the Chinese sounds angry. The audience laughed along as they took in the captivating set of banter and banjo playing.

There were also a few minutes of suspense when the couple raffled off a coveted ukulele to a lucky audience member, Charlotte, age 10, from Edgartown. All proceeds from the act’s retail sales were directed to Island Collaborative, the Martha’s Vineyard-based organization that facilitates collaboration between organizations and members of the community.

As the show came to an end, Ms. Washburn expressed her appreciation for the Island and the people she had met over the past several days: “Everyone is so down to earth, kind and intentional. We don’t get to see that everywhere we go.”

In an email to The Times, Mr. DaRosa added, “It was such a pleasure working with such an amazing duo. Not only musically, but their energy and extremely humble personalities made it such a pleasure to be a part of the event. I’m so happy that the community supported it in such a major way, and hope that we can make this an annual event with Bela and Abigail, and hopefully baby Juno!”

For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Sound Festival or Martha’s Vineyard Sound music series events, email philipdarosa@gmail.com or visit tpspresents.com.