Oldtime and bluegrass enthusiasts beware: In an interview with Variety at this year’s South by Southwest festival even Béla Fleck—whose UFO Tofu release basked in futuristic fusion—referred to the combination of instruments on this album as “weird.” And who could argue? Two banjos, a fiddle and a cello don’t exactly add up to your average stringband. The players in this particular group, however, don’t seem preoccupied with what’s “average.”
Fiddler Casey Dreissen has played backup for the likes of Steve Earle and John Mayer. And Ben Sollee, a Kentucky native, bows cello with such an unusual touch that it sometimes sounds like a wind instrument. Three-finger virtuoso Béla Fleck mans one of the two banjos, and the other is womaned—in the pre-Earl Scruggs clawhammer style—by Abigail Washburn.
From the opening “Overture”—which quotes riffs (an Asian-infused banjo trill here, a gravely yodel there) from the album’s varied tracks—to the end, it’s clear we’re in the presence of adept skill. The only question is if this cross-cultural musical conversation (Washburn often warbles in Chinese) will prove too heady for the repeat button.
Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet play the Wilma Theatre Tuesday, July 29, at 8 PM. $28/$25 in advance.