11 April 2018 | James Porteous | Hawkins Bay Dispatch
I was lucky enough many years ago to attend a screening at a grand old theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland of Bela Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart, his wonderful documentary tracing the history of the five-string banjo in Africa.
Fleck did a Q&A at the end of the film and told a wonderful story about traveling through and listening to the music of Africa.
One band he encountered was trying to make some extra money selling tapes of their shows and each night they would set up their cassette player, record the show and then offer it for sale at the end of the night. Just the one tape each night.
Fleck said he took the band-leader aside and explained, very nicely, that they did not have to go to all that trouble every single night. They could in fact make duplicate copies of their shows and perhaps sell many, many more cassettes.
The story seemed to epitomize everything I like about Fleck and his music. A banjo-player, in this day and age, is probably not what most musicians would set out to be, but if you set out to be this thing and you have a wildly discerning and inventive musical vocabulary, it makes perfect sense.
So it is with Echo in the Valley, the second solo offering with his partner, the singer/banjo player Abigail Washburn.
Not only is it impossible to nail-down an overall genre for the set, but one quickly realizes that there really is no need to do so.
The music taps into so many styles, feelings, roots, past, present, future, yesterday, today, the unknown, the unseen and the familiar. So much so that it is almost shocking to discover that the bulk of the songs were written by the pair, while still managing to breath new life into the traditional songs.
A case in point is their version of the traditional ‘Come All You Coal Miners‘ (see below) which is as relevant and as timely today as it was when it became the centrepiece of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, And even before that, of course.
Kopple tells us elsewhere that the song, by Sarah Ogan Gunning, was written as the ‘struggle of women’ to survive a capitalist system that seemed determined to see them sinking into ‘the darkest pits of hell.’
The version found here is no less powerful and in fact, given our day and age, might sound even more so.
There is also the wonderful medley ‘Sally in the Garden / Big Country / Molly Put the Kettle On.’ The emotional versatility displayed here is breathtaking, once again meshing the tenants and foundations of traditional song with a modern-rending that immediately sounds familiar and completely new all at once.
One cannot say enough about Washburn’s vocals. ‘If I Could Talk to a Younger Me,’ for example, offers a styling that starts off sounding almost vulnerable but we quickly discover that she has been teasing us, as her singing soon becomes a vocal powerhouse.
And ‘Don’t Let it Bring You Down‘ would not sound out-of-place on any alt-country album released in the last 10 years.
According to NPR Echo in the Valley follows self-imposed rules that mandate “a banjos-only policy for instrumentation, with no guest players and nothing on record that the two can’t duplicate in a live setting.”
That feeling, the bare-bones approach certainly comes through but not in a way one might expect. It truth, it sounds like a dozen players have crowded into the studio and set out to bend the strings of time in ways no has ever quite imagined.
In short, Echo in the Valley is a pure delight from beginning to end.