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Fleck 'trio,' SteelDrivers light up 'Mountain Stage'

By Joseph C. Atkins

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- Anticipation was high as my wife and I walked into the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts at West Virginia Wesleyan College for Sunday's recording of "Mountain Stage."

Béla Fleck and his wife, a very pregnant Abigail Washburn, were the headliners. Washburn joked to the sold-out auditorium that the two banjo players were, in fact, now a trio. Joining them were Glen Phillips,  The Stray Birds,  Houndmouth and the band my wife and I had come to see, Nashville's The SteelDrivers.

Fleck is a magician on the banjo. I've never seen fingers move so quickly. His tone and experimentation with what the instrument can do are jaw dropping. The man I consider the greatest banjo player in the world said after the show that he considers Fleck the greatest. I'll concede.

The recordings I'd heard of Washburn singing did not do her voice justice. In the 4-year-old venue at Wesleyan, her vocals soared. Her and Fleck's version of Doc Watson's "Am I Born to Die" was beautiful and haunting.

I had never heard Chinese sung before Sunday. Washburn is fluent in East Asian language and sang her song "Kangding Qingge" for us. She said it is about a man who is on a hill overlooking his town and, on the way back down, he falls in love with a pretty girl he sees whom he is sure will make a great mother to their future children. One did not need to know the words to feel the emotion in the song. It was wonderful.

Phillips, of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame, opened Sunday's show. He is a talented guitarist and singer/songwriter. My wife and I were really taken by "No Blue Sky," from his "Coyote Sessions" CD. It's a sad but lovely tune.

The Stray Birds is a Lancaster County, Pa., acoustic trio of Charles Muench, Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven. These highly gifted young musicians' lyrics and harmonies stand out as much as their mastery of bluegrass instruments. De Vitry is no bigger than a minute, but she has got some lungs. The trio's "Dream in Blue" and "My Brother's Hill," from their 2012 self-titled CD, were standout performances.

Houndmouth is a loud fusion of folk and rock out of Indiana. The band is made up of Katie Toupin, Matt Myers, Zak Appleby and Shane Cody. I had a difficult time making out their lyrics. They are, however, talented musicians.

My wife and I found The SteelDrivers via British pop phenom Adele, who covered the band's "If It Hadn't Been For Love." Adele raved about the song and singer Gary Nichols' voice before performing it at the Royal Albert Hall. The song is about a guy sentenced to life without parole for gunning down his significant other because she done him wrong.

Band members joked with the "Mountain Stage" audience that they were about to perform a cover of Adele's cover of their song. I love Adele's version; I love the original more.

The SteelDrivers are banjo player Richard Bailey, bass player and singer Mike Flemming, guitar player and lead singer Nichols, mandolin player Brent Truitt and lightning-fast fiddler and singer Tammy Rogers. There isn't a bad song on their latest CD, "Hammer Down," which came out in February.

Sunday was an evening filled with wonderful music and outstanding musicianship. The "Mountain Stage" website says the show will air on NPR the week after May 24. Anticipation is building again.

Atkins is a Gazette copy editor.


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