Weekender

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will bring their banjos to Eisenhower Auditorium

Husband-wife duo Abigail Washburn, left, and Béla Fleck have played in Happy Valley several times.
Husband-wife duo Abigail Washburn, left, and Béla Fleck have played in Happy Valley several times. Photo provided

Legendary banjo player Béla Fleck and his wife, fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn, will take the stage at Eisenhower Auditorium Oct. 22.

Native New Yorker Fleck found music at a young age.

“I remember listening to a lot of music with my big brother Louie when we were kids,” Fleck said. “The Beatles are what kicked it over the top, but we listened to everything that was available in New York City in the ’60s, and there was lot to listen to.”

Fleck’s vast and storied career in the music industry has been shaped by several influences, both in his genre and out.

“I’ve got to say, Chick Corea is one of the biggies,” Fleck said. “And, he comes to mind because I’m fortunate enough to be out on tour with him, and to have just released a second duo album with him, called ‘Two.’ He really changed the game in terms of what I thought was possible with music. Also, Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka rank the highest on the bluegrass side. Those pesky Beatles, Joni Mitchell and the list goes on and on.”

Bluegrass means a lot to Béla Fleck. He believes that it’s all basically evolved from one band.

“The Original Bluegrass Band, which I love deeply and consider to be the beginning of an incredible art form sparked an amazing outpouring of wonderful American acoustic music,” Fleck said. “When Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Band, the fuse was lit. Every bluegrass musician of note has innovated and pushed this music forward. I love the first band, and I love the innovative offshoots. There’s no need to choose between them, they’re all fantastic. I’m proud to be able to play my role in the grand bluegrass scheme of things.”

When asked about the resurgence of folk music in popular culture, Fleck didn’t seem impressed simply with bands with folk instruments. He insists that good music is good music, regardless.

“I don’t feel strongly about it,” said Fleck. “If they use the instruments and the soul of it in an artful way, I’m all for it. If I think it’s lame, then I think it’s lame.”

Fleck and Washburn recently released a new EP which includes one particularly off-the-wall track.

“It started with the extra tracks we had recorded for the ‘Béla Fleck Abigail Washburn’ CD we released last year,” Fleck said. “When we realized that they weren’t ever used, we needed a strategy to get these out, because we were really into them. We added our cover of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown,’ which went viral, and several strong live tracks.”

If he wasn’t playing music, Fleck thinks he’d be up to something very meaningful.

“Wow — it’s very hard for me to imagine,” he said. “I would need to be doing something that allows me to focus and work hard on something meaningful. I know — I’d be a plumber!”

The banjo legend is no stranger to Happy Valley. He feels lucky to be able to return to State College after his several previous ventures here.

“Oh yes — I have had such amazing times at PSU,” said Fleck. “I’ll always remember the two Banjo Summits we did there, and the African Tour, and playing there with Chick Corea. I feel very fortunate to be able to keep coming back.”

Fleck assures fans that the Eisenhower Auditorium show will be a good time for all, especially for him.

“We are going to have a great time!” he said. “Let’s talk about Abigail for a moment. She is a clawhammer banjo player, and I am a three-finger player. These styles don’t typically mesh, but we’ve made it the basis of our duo, so that is unusual. And she has a beautiful voice, and writes incredible songs. But most of all she loves to connect with people, and she brings that side of me out as well. So there’s a lot of goofing around, telling some stories, and even a sing-along or two — and a lot of banjos on stage. If you love banjos — hey, there will be eight of them on stage being passed back and forth. If you think you hate banjos — come check this out, and if you still hate them — I give you permission to never go to a banjo show again!”

“Artistic Viewpoints,” a moderated discussion with Béla Fleck, will be held prior to the Oct. 22 performance and is free for ticket holders.

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