The Ark in Ann Arbor is one of those venues that’s perfect for folk music. It’s small, it’s cozy, there are tables and comfortable chairs, and you’re just an arm length away from the artist at any given moment. It’s a venue where legends of folk music have come to play and one where Abigail Washburn is no stranger. That was made clear by her instant comfort identifying people in the audience and by telling the crowd that there was always “a feeling of community and love” in the room.
And it was her sunny attitude and comfort in her own skin that made Washburn’s performance at The Ark so delightful. She and her band bantered with each other, told lame jokes they learned from Steve Martin while they were touring with him, and brought out the band’s “characters,” which were clearly silly inventions of late nights on the road (drummer Jamie Dick was beckoned to do both “Whistlin’ Dick”, his simple hillbilly character, and “Coach Dick”, his angry coach who wanted to “cut funding for the arts”). This band was having a great time, which made the experience that much better for the audience.
Washburn’s smoky, beautiful voice really soared with “Keys to the Kingdom” and “Everybody Does it Now”, two lazy old jazz tunes that she recorded with The Sparrow Quartet (her group with Bela Fleck and Ben Sollee). But the real story of the show was the new material, which will be released on her upcoming album City of Refuge in January 2011– Washburn described the current tour as the “prelude” tour. She recorded City of Refuge with producer Tucker Martine, who has worked with The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens, and wrote many songs with Kai Welch, who joined her on guitar, harmonica, keys, trumpet, and harmonies.
It’s amazing how Washburn can take what looks like an American roots band (drummer, upright bass, fiddle, guitar, banjo) and infuse a distinctly Eastern sound into the strings. Actually, Washburn has a long history with China, having studied Chinese, lived in China for a long time, and recorded a few songs in Chinese. She even wore a kimono-esque dress to The Ark. But it’s especially apparent in Washburn’s banjo picking and in Rob Hecht’s fiddling (she actually met Hecht in Shanghai)– there’s just a hint of Asian strings in those American songs. They opened the show with “City of Refuge,” which has an epic Eastern feel to it. Later, they played “Taiyang Chulai”, which is a 1930s Chinese folk song with tribal percussion.
One of the definite highlights was “Sala”, a song Washburn learned from a little girl who had lost family to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was a sweet song, and she had the entire audience singing with her. The lyrics, according to Washburn, translate roughly to, “We’re dancing around a fire and it’s awesome,” but the attitude of the song was, “We’ve seen disaster, but we’re doing fine.”
Although it was disappointing that Washburn didn’t do any songs without the band (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a fantastic song when it’s just banjo and vocals), it was a lovely surprise to see them quiet down at the end. The night ended with an unplugged and largely a cappella version of “Bright Morning Stars”. Washburn stepped to the front of the stage, left the mic behind her, smiled, and sang beautifully. It was a gorgeous, heart wrenching number to close on, with she and Welch singing over spare violin and bass. It was a lovely ending that left the entire audience eager to hear City of Refuge.
Photos by Morgan Barrie.
City of Refuge
Keys to the Kingdom
What are They Doing In Heaven Today
Bring Me My Queen
Everybody Does It Now
The Ballad of Treason
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Bright Morning Stars