Abigail Washburn’s “City of Refuge,” NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert and Winter Tour
Abigail Washburn changes what seems possible.
I first saw Ms. Washburn at a Mountain Stage show in 2004. She had just returned from China and her solo album, “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” was just being released. She talked a lot about her life, music and times in China and expressed it in her music. As anyone who has been exposed even a little bit to traditional Chinese music can tell you, it can sound somewhat astringent to western ears. Take that and add that it was all played on the banjo resulted in a confluence of styles and sensibilities that was at once both intriguing and daunting.
But by the time she performed “Rockabye Dixie” she had not only added an additional cultural layer to her music, she had become spellbinding. Her music epitomizes think globally, use your talents locally.
Her arc since then is well known, solo albums, Uncle Earl, Sparrow Quartet, professional and person relationship with Bela Fleck, touring around the world and gaining the respect of fellow musicians and charming audiences – all without seeming to try and without the cynical me-itis that afflicts the many these days.
On January 11 Ms. Washburn adds yet another layer, another chapter to her already gifted musical journey with the release of “City of Refuge” on Rounder Records. While it was originally scheduled to be self-released in September 2010, Rounder picked it up and wanted some additional time. Not to change the music – the album is exactly the same as the one I first received last August, sans cover art and even song titles, but rather, I suspect, what the record company thought prudent — to prepare her many listeners for something different.
I was unaware of this when I last saw her last August when she and her band performed most of the songs from the album. While it’s certainly more singer-songwriter oriented, to me it’s not so much a departure, but rather a logical and maturing natural progression.
An impressive group of musicians and friends joined Ms. Wahburn in the making of “City of Refuge,” including songwriting collaborator Kai Welch (Tommy & the Whale), guitarist Bill Frisell, fiddler Rayna Gellert, guzheng (the ancient Chinese zither) master Wu Fei, with string arrangements by Jeremy Kittel of the Turtle Island String Quartet, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig. Chris Funk from the Decemberists and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket also appear on the record. Apart from Ms. Gellert (former Uncle Earl partner) all of the album’s musicians are new.
Produced by Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Tift Merritt, Mudhoney), it is apparent from the album’s opening short track of Gellert’s fiddle solo of “Bright Morning Stars” against a backdrop of anonymous voices, living, full of joy. She then returns to perform an acappella version of the song, with the fiddle slowly gaining prominence. By adding an “s” to “Star” and making it plural, she takes a Christian hymn and makes it universal, not only to other religions, but to anyone who believes that if there is a “purpose” in life, it is to experience it in all of it’s creative mysteries. Like the closing lines in Mary Oliver’s seminal poem “Wild Geese”:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Ms. Washburn first heard — and learned — the song “Bright Morning Star” at the Augusta Heritage Center music festival in Elkins, West Virginia as she was first beginning to find herself in the musical imagination. To hear it expressed so vividly in her new album is sweetness itself.
“City of Refuge” in it’s entirety was previewed last week on NPR Music and that site currently features Ms. Washburn and group in its Tiny Desk Concert.
Ms. Washburn celebrates the release of “City of Refuge” with an appearance on January 11 in New York at the Housing Works Café, followed by more tour dates in the US & UK, listed below. She will be accompanied by current music collaborator Kai Welch.
(Rayna Gellert, Bryn Davies, Abigail, Kai Welch)
All performance photos by Amos Perrine
2011 Tour Dates, so far:
January 9 New York, NY BB King’s (APAP showcase)
January 11 New York, NY Housing Works Café
January 12 Philadelphia, PA Tin Angel
January 13 Raleigh, NC Berkeley Café
January 14 Johnson City, TN Down Home
January 15 Asheville, NC The Grey Eagle
January 17 Louisville, KY Ear X-Tacy
January 25 Glasgow, UK Celtic Connetions
January 26 Sheffield, UK The Greystones
January 28 Newcastle, UK The Cluny
January 29 Winchester, UK The Railway Inn
January 30 Bristol, UK Thekla
January 31 London, UK The Slaughtered Lamb
February 16-17 Memphis, TN Folk Alliance
February 26 Colorado Springs Colorado College
February 27 Denver, CO Swallow Hill