@ The Wardrobe, Leeds
Willie Nelson has a line that goes: “it’s hard to play a sad song on a banjo”. Abigail Washburn proves you may not manage a sad one but you can play an intense one. And she should know, she’s got three of the things on stage. Opening on the baritone one, her conspirator, Kai Welch lays down a wash of deep keyboard bass while Abigail rubs her banjo, building atmosphere before reaching her intense song. She has an intent and tight little face with a whispered but taut voice. Everything about her singing persona is fraught and there is no smile till the end of her song, City Of Refuge.
So far, so like the album. The last album completely failed to interest me – it was deathly serious and meaningful, whilst failing to engage my emotions. Tonight, however, Abigail reveals herself as a performer and, more importantly, as a person. She has a lot to thank Kai for, with him acting as a foil for between-song banter and an inspirer of jokes and anecdotes. Every song gains from some introduction here and the serious and remote becomes real through chat. The audience concentrate hard, sat round tables downstairs from Leeds’ jazz bar. The songs are less cluttered here than the album, more accessible and are sold by the personalities onstage.
The keyboards add a lot, they often create cross-cutting patterns and run with them for mood, adding intensity to the songs. The songs come to life with the colour added to them by Abigail’s context. Then there is the musicianship to watch. There’s no doubt she’s a banjo wiz and when she plays the odd cover, things hot up till I want her to play more classics instead of her well-meaning but less winning material. The key to Abigail is that voice. It is tight, sometimes frail, almost hoarse. It has severe limitations but singers like Piaf and Holliday made a career out of that. She reminds us of this when she steps away from the mike to sing a thirties gospel song. She does the same later with Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine, acapella. I can’t put Abigail’s limited instrument in the Piaf / Holliday category but tonight, she sells herself through force of will. A rare song, like All Of Your Chains, sees her voice open up a little then there are moments when she opens that voice and it become sweet and floating, like in the mock 30’s Shanghai jazz tune (honest!) she sings ethereally. At times like that, I want more and wonder why she chooses to limit herself.