Bluegrass royalty: Fleck, Washburn and Punch Brothers to bring modern folk to the Amp

Bela Fleck

punchbrothers _ 7.10Banjos. Banjos as far as the eye can see.

The traditional instrument may not be associated with the kind of entertainment usually found in the Amphitheater, but banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn and band Punch Brothers will show that banjos — and the other bluegrass instruments — are not limited to the hillbilly stereotype that is often applied to them. The groups will take the stage at 8:15 p.m. tonight.

“I happen to love the banjo, and I’ve always felt that it was unfairly maligned through the ’70s and ’80s,” Fleck said. “And when you know its origins as a slave instrument from Africa, it is offensive to portray it as a kind of joke hillbilly prop. Ever since I started playing, I’ve had to contend with ignorant, anti-banjo prejudices, and I like to gently upend them.”

Fleck is often called one of the most technically proficient banjo players in the world, and has played with such bands as New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. This musical variety has earned Fleck 13 Grammy Awards and more than 20 nominations that span more categories than any other artist in Grammy history.

In addition to her work as both a solo artist and as a two-person act with Fleck, Washburn has toured in China with the hope of sharing American music to promote cultural understanding.

Though he has stuck to the banjo, Fleck’s musical style has varied from jazz to rock and, recently, to classical with the release of his concerto for banjo and orchestra, The Impostor. He is also the subject of the recent documentary, “Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto,” which features the last on-camera appearance of banjo legend Earl Scruggs.

“So much music becomes new again when you add the banjo, and I am very curious about different types of music,” Fleck said. “I get to understand them through the banjo.”

Fleck’s most recent album is a duet with Washburn, his wife, titled Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Though the album initially sounds like a return to the old-time, folk music that the banjo is most closely associated with, Fleck said the record is anything but traditional.

“This project is perceived as a more traditional move for both of us, because of all the banjos involved and some traditional material, but I’ll point out that neither of us has ever heard of a touring clawhammer and three finger duo in the history of banjo music,” he said. “These are our two styles, which are quite different from each other. This means that we get to be quite creative in finding rolls for the two different styles to play. It’s natural and idiomatic, yet quite unusual.”

Fleck and Washburn plan to play several pieces from their duet album, but Fleck said they will also play a few new songs, as well as tunes from Washburn’s previous recordings.

While the pair have wanted to form a duet for nearly a decade, the impetus for their joint tour came with the birth of their son.

“Once we knew we were going to be parents, we had to find a way to be together much more of the time,” Fleck said. “With two touring musicians in one relationship, you can imagine how much time we have been apart up til now.” 

The addition of Punch Brothers to the current leg of their tour is also a check off Fleck’s and Washburn’s dream pairings.

“They were at the top of our wish list of great people to tour with if possible,” Fleck said. “I’ve known most of them [Punch Brothers] since they were teenagers, and watching them progress to being the most influential and revered modern acoustic group has been such a joy to watch. And aside from the music, they are our friends.”

According to the Punch Brothers’ banjo player, Noam Pikelny, the band considers Fleck to be “a hero” who influenced the group “more than any other single musician.”

“It’s an absolute honor, obviously, to get to share the stage with him,” Pikelny said. “And it’s good to know that I could go on stage and completely forget how to play the banjo, or put my banjo on left handed by accident, and people who paid their good money for these tickets will still leave having had a profound banjo experience. … If I put on the worst banjo performance in the history of the world, it will still average out to the audience’s favor because Béla is on the bill.”

The Punch Brothers consist of Pikelny, Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Paul Kowert (bass), Chris Thile (mandolin) and Chris Eldridge (guitar). Though the band features traditional bluegrass string band instrumentation, Pikelny said the group strives to avoid being placed into any single genre.

“What’s defined the band from the beginning to this day — and what charts our course as we go forward — is just to be original and true to ourselves and to our musicianship and to our experience,” Pikelny said. “I think we as a band bonded early and have stayed together for 10 years because we share this interest in creating wholly unique music that’s not confined by any genre constraints or stylistic constraints.”

In addition to his work with Punch Brothers, Pikelny has received the first Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, a Grammy nomination for his solo album, Beat The Devil and Carry a Rail, and was named the 2014 Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Thile was announced as the future host of “A Prairie Home Companion” in late June. He has appeared on several episodes of the American Public Media program as a guest host with Garrison Keillor in the past, and will slowly begin to take over the program in the 2015-2016 season.

The Punch Brothers’ fourth studio album, Phosphorescent Blues, was released in January and features lyrics that wrestle with the modern era’s dependence on technology.

“So much of the record is kind of an exploration of how gadgetry and technology has changed the way we interact with people,” Pikelny said. “And I think there’s a little bit of a yearning for something real or authentic or concrete in the midst of seeing the artificial connections that are so easily forged these days.”

Pikelny said the Punch Brothers’ set will feature music from both Phosphorescent Blues and their older albums.

Though the Punch Brothers might be wary of technological innovation, Fleck said he is enjoying his real-world time with the band.

“At our last gig with Punch Brothers we did play the encores together, and it was pretty awesome,” Fleck said. “They are such a fantastic group.”