Banjos and storytime
I made my first Casbeers visit on the anniversary of the Katrina Hurricane. Some displaced New Orleans musicians and a few locals played a show that night to raise money on behalf of Gulf Coast hurricane victims. I sat myself high on a stool at the bar, ate a delicious burger (after weeks of a red-meat fast), and floated away in the waves of horns and harmonicas. It was the music of emotion. After one evening in that dark, inspired atmosphere, I vowed to return two days later for what seemed an unusually awesome opportunity: to see banjo player and vocalist Abigail Washburn perform with “the best banjo player in the world” (Washburn’s own words), Bela Fleck, for a mere $8 cover. Within one casual week, I had become a Casbeers regular.
During both of my visits, the place reminded me of a bar and diner out of a hard-boiled mystery novel, consisting of all things real: chocolate cake and black coffee, wine and elderly male regulars making pussy metaphors. The Christmas-tree tassel, stuffed game heads, and the many, many black-and-white photos crowding the walls took me back to my late grandmother’s attic, a place where I could wander around for hours, rummaging contentedly. Casbeers is authentically aged; it was built in 1932.
Both nights, the booths lining the walls inside Casbeers were already full of music patrons when I arrived, so I became most acquainted with the bar seating. I was content with this during the Katrina memorial concert, during which I was more wrapped up in my immediate surroundings and feeling less of a need to watch the musicians. When Abigail Washburn began to sing in Chinese, however, there was nothing I wanted more than to escape the loud sizzle of frying potatoes and drown myself in all things banjo and ballad. Her voice was transcendent, both earthly and ethereal, and though I did not know the words she sang, I felt I suddenly belonged in rural China, under tree-shade on a sunny day, digging my fingers into warm soil.
I maneuvered my way through the bundles of college couples parked in front of me and claimed the last sliver of standing room available with a view of the stage.
I was surprised by Washburn’s almost ghostly demeanor, her pale, freckled face lost inside a wild sea of curls. Her eyes and smile were youthful yet wise. She seemed a little awkward and shy when she spoke, but was untouchable when singing. Her tunes (some original, some traditional) were carried along by the plucking strings of her and Fleck’s banjos and the deep tones of Ben Sollee’s cello, sometimes plucked, sometimes sawed with a bow.
The medley of sounds these three created was calming and meditative, like a lullaby, with Abigail as the mother figure, warm and soothing. Her tales of traveling and playing music in China, or teaching English to Chinese living in America, seemed linked by a desire and ability to nurture the world through art and music. Fleck, by contrast, spoke rarely, but seemed as natural a comedian as a banjoist extraordinaire. Where Abigail strummed chords, he rallied with staccato, playing with scales, jumping from one end to the next. Taking two steps forward, one step back, three forward, four back, he was impossible to predict or to overlook. Completely unpretentious, he’d raise a comic eyebrow at a misplaced note, and his face danced to the music. I had never been a follower of Fleck and his Flecktones, but as I watched him perform, I knew I was witnessing greatness.
And then there was Sarah Jarosz, the mind-blowing 15-year-old mandolin player from Wimberley who joined the musicians for several songs during both of their sets. She inspired awe with her confidence and abilities, her solos ranking among some of the best live solos I’ve ever heard, on any instrument. She was a perfect fit for Washburn’s style, and she seemed to bring out the singer’s playfulness as they performed to one another; the two women lit up the stage with an organic call-and-response that belied differences in age and experience.
The evening was a humbling one, where music was a gift shared among musicians, between performer and audience, old and new world, long-time fan and first-time observer.