Abigail Washburn & Kai Welch at Womad (Taranaki, New Zealand- 3/16 & 17, 2013)
I am so glad I’m not a paid music reviewer! The luxury of being able to see a slew of live acts and not need to write a word, and then the bounty of seeing one that moves me to write, this makes putting pen to paper a true delight.
I’ve recently returned from Womad Taranaki, an annual festival of world music held in the sublime beauty of a botanical gardens and forest park very near the centre of the small city of New Plymouth, New Zealand. Five stages with acts from around the world performing over two and a half days. This years acts covered the continents, headlined by Jimmy Cliff, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Salif Keta, Hugh Masekal, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Goran Bregovic & His Weddings & Funerals Orchestra and Abigail Washburn & Kai Welch. A veritable feast of entertainment.
This is in no way intended as a review of the whole Festival, it is simply a personal reflection on one particular act and their contribution to the whole.
Abigail Washburn & Kai Welch performed for the first time on Saturday afternoon, to a crowd of about five thousand. I had walked up to hear them after listening to The Soweto Gospel Choir, so it is fair to say that my soul was light! The vivid colour and sumptuous vocal work of the choir heard on a sun-bathed afternoon had me in a floating, receptive frame of mind as I walked up the hill to catch Abigail & Kai’s first performance in New Zealand.
It’s fair to say that I have a bias, my leaning in music listening is toward Americana, and this act were really the only representation at the festival. I had heard a little of them playing together, but couldn’t say I was very familiar with their work.
The first moments of any live show are a big “tell” to me, an indication of things to come. As Abigail & Kai came on stage, their excitement at performing for us and their joy at being here were palpable. They knew that they weren’t well known to their audience and so they entertained us with background stories; to them, their music and their musical journey. The music flowed, with the surprise element of Chinese influence in the songs adding a new level to the delicacy and intricate weave of their traditional old time American sound.
This was folk for a new world, and as in early times when music was a bridge between the old world of the United Kingdom and the colonising of the United States, and later a bridge between the villages of Africa and the slave plantations of America, here was a new bridge; a bridge between modern day China and the USA.
This was a trio peaking. The merging of Abigail and Kai’s voices, the interweaving of guitar and banjo, the subtle underlay of Jamie Dick’s drums, the occasional enhancement of trumpet & keyboard, and the virtuosity of Abigail on Banjo gave a depth and resonance to the songs that drew the large crowd in very close. A surprise to me was Kai’s use of looping, never overt, but using electronic technology to full advantage, without undermining the integrity of the pure sound.
You can tell I was impressed! The hour long set was masterfully constructed to introduce, engage, entertain and inform the audience. As it ended and the crowd slowly dispersed overheard snatches of conversation reinforced my impression that this was something special. It wasn’t just the music, it was the fact that the three people on stage had really enjoyed themselves and had shared so much of themselves, there was an intimacy and spontaneity that belied the fact that they were on a stage in front of a large crowd.
The next day the rain arrived in a drought stricken region! The Taranaki province of New Zealand is a dairy farming area, dominated by a majestic dormant volcano, Mt Taranaki. It is normally a very green landscape, but this year the rain has been scarce and much of the pastureland is parched. So to wake to steady rain was a mixed blessing. The last day of the festival, but at last some relief for the farmers. Festival goers are an adaptable bunch, and the crowds gathered protected by everything from cheap plastic ponchos to full body wetsuits.
Abigail & Kai held a workshop on the tiny Dell Stage to about 400 people early on Sunday afternoon. It was obvious that most had seen the previous days’ concert because the welcome was warm and effusive. To call this session a workshop is a little grandiose! In reality it was informal conversation interspersed with songs. Abigail did talk about the “Claw-hammer” technique she uses with the banjo, and there were a couple of very lively demonstrations of “Clogging”.
Again it was the personalities of Abigail, Kai & Jamie that shone through. Their repartee, their humour, the ease with which they played off one another, musically and conversationally that totally won the audience. A highlight was the rendition of “Keys to the Kingdom”, hopefully visible in the attached video.
Their final performance of the festival, and perhaps the highlight, was on another small stage, The Chimney Stage. By now I believe they were aware of how much they were being enjoyed by the festival goers, and the entire area was crowded to capacity. The song introductions, the smiles, the true grace of their performance was such a treat to behold. Early evening light against the backdrop of trees was quite magical.
At one point a heavy shower of rain drifted through, and Abigail noted that it was like seeing a flock of birds change direction in full flight, umbrellas and coat hoods came up in unison!
A bonus came when Jamie Dick came out from behind his drum kit and invited the members of the British group Lau to join them onstage. There followed two songs, one Abigail’s and the other Lau’s, performed together. The enthusiasm and energy of the six of them working together on stage was mesmerizing, the crowd were quickly on their feet, and it felt like Appalachia & The Highlands came together to party.
I am sure that my enthusiasm for their contribution is obvious. There were other highlights to the Festival for me, but I think the purity of the sound, the joy of performing and sharing, the grace and humour that Abigail & Kai brought to the festival left a profound mark on many a local soul.