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America’s hottest banjo duo – or should we say dueling banjo act? – is headed for Portland’s State Theatre on Friday. Presented by Portland Ovations in conjunction with the historic theater, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn top a varied list of musical acts this week.
A few blocks west on the same evening, the venerable folk-rock duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman, who go by the moniker Aztec Two-Step, will appear in support of their newest recording, “Naked.”
Gaelynn Lea, a very unusual violinist who lives with a difficult physical disability, appears at Portland’s SPACE Gallery on Saturday.
Decompression Chamber Music has reformed its act, and resumes a regular gig in Portland on Monday. Artistic director Priscilla Hayes Taylor views this series as an easy introduction to classical chamber music for newbie and non-traditional audiences.
Call it a marriage made in banjo heaven.
That’s the story of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a pair of five-string banjo virtuosos who amassed a number of individual honors in solo projects and varied collaborations before marrying and touring the world as a duo. The act appears this Friday as part of Portland Ovations’ 2017-2018 season in a collaborative production with the State Theatre.
Individually, Fleck is the better known of the pair, having collected 13 Grammy Awards between 1995 and 2012 in multiple categories, including bluegrass, folk, pop and classical crossover. His best-known collaborations are with New Grass Revival, Asleep at the Wheel and his own group, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
In addition to her banjo prowess, Washburn boasts a fine singing voice and a wealth of experience as instrumentalist and singer with ensembles such as Uncle Earl, the Sparrow Quartet and Wu-Force. Washburn speaks Mandarin Chinese and her concerts often feature a song or two in that language.
The two have been performing together as a duo since the birth of their son in 2013. Fleck and Washburn recently picked up a Grammy for their first joint recording, an eponymous CD which won the award (Fleck’s 14th) in last year’s Best Folk category.
Writing for the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, concert reviewer John Shand commented on their joint performance: “He may be the famed, genre-crossing, multi-Grammy-winning virtuoso who has redefined the banjo’s potential, but ultimately this concert threw the spotlight more on to Washburn. As superb as the instrumentals were it was her singing and the chemistry between this husband-and-wife team … that made the performance so intimate.”
Rex Fowler, who hails from central Maine, and Neal Shulman, a native New Yorker, met at an open mic in Boston in 1971 and found an instant artistic affinity as singers, songwriters and guitarists. Within a few months they recorded and released their first album, taking their curious moniker, Aztec Two-Step, from a phrase by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Forty-six years later, Fowler and Shulman are still touring the world – principally college campuses, coffee shops and intimate listening rooms. This Friday, One Longfellow Square, Portland’s best and most intimate listening room, hosts Aztec Two-Step. Fortunately for Mainers, because Fowler often visits family in the Pine Tree State, the pair frequently perform here. In Portland, One Longfellow Square is their usual venue.
Fowler and Shulman have been identified with the Beats from the get-go. They write most of their own material and sing with elegant two-part harmonies.
Over the course of their long artistic collaboration, Fowler and Shulman have recorded 17 albums. The most recent, “Naked,” was released earlier this year. Expect most of it to be played this Friday.
Catch Aztec Two-Step at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland, at 8 p.m. Nov. 17. Call 761-1757.
The winner of the second annual National Public Radio Tiny Desk Competition will play in Portland this Saturday. Chosen from among 6,000 submissions, Gaelynn Lea’s “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” copped top honors in 2016.
Lea is a classically trained violinist who creates haunting, melancholic folk music using Celtic and American fiddle traditions. She is also a strong voice in the disability community.
Living with osteogenesis imperfecta – a congenital condition that is commonly known as brittle bone disease – Lea holds her violin in a very unique upright position, bowing it more like a cello than the normal under-the-chin style. This results in an unusual sound, because the bow strikes the violin’s lowest strings first in contrast to the traditional style.
In addition to her musical career, Lea also frequently speaks on disability rights, methods for using the arts to counter and compensate for disabilities and accessibility issues in the music industry.
If you’re interested in exploring classical chamber music but might feel out of place in traditional concert settings, Priscilla Hayes Taylor offers an easier way in.
Taylor, a classical cellist with wide connections in eastern Massachusetts, and a coterie of fellow musicians perform a series of concerts in Boston and Portland using the moniker Decompression Chamber Music.
One big idea is to use small venues that are mostly associated with folk and pop acts, such as Club Passim in Cambridge, and One Longfellow Square in Portland. Taylor explains her thinking: “Our unique format of performance and dialogue creates a more relaxed atmosphere than traditional concert settings. We play, engage, and offer insight, giving listeners a deeper understanding of the music, and new listening skills to enhance all their musical experiences.”
I’ve attended a number of their concerts over the past two years, and I’m very favorably impressed with the performances – which are top-notch – and the ambiance of the presentation, which resembles a nightclub.
I’m also impressed with Taylor’s easygoing relationship with her audience as she explains the music and why she and her cohorts like it, all done in very non-technical style.
This Monday’s performance will include two string quartets, by Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. The former, an 18th-century Austrian, is regarded as the father of the format. The latter, a native German who composed in the early 19th century, penned 17 string quartets, which are collectively considered the apex.
This Monday, Nov. 20, Decompression Chamber Music returns to Portland for its ninth season at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Performance time is 7 p.m. Call 761-1757.
Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck are America’s hottest banjo duo. They’ll perform Friday at Portland’s State Theatre.