“Bela Fleck and the ORIGINAL Flecktones” – that’s what it said on the programs. It made me think of those ’50s package shows featuring doo-wop groups that haven’t been seen for years and years. And in truth, that metaphor works: Nearly two decades have passed since harp player Howard Levy left Bela and the boys to go make money with Kenny Loggins. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin (who’s now making money with the Dave Matthews Band) had become a fact of life after over ten years with the Flecktones, so some visible line-up delineation had to be made in the marketing literature. Fortunately, that wasn’t all that was changed.
As the lights went down, Levy was actually kind of an afterthought for the people sitting around me. “Come on, Victor,” one guy yelled. “Bring out the Wooten!” The man got his wish as Victor Lemonte Wooten, arguably the best bass player of his generation, appeared in the spotlight and started laying down a deliciously funky figure. He was immediately joined – physically and musically – by digital drummer Futureman, aka older brother Roy Wooten. Fleck came out playing next; then Levy “re-joined” the lineup, and they were off playing the kind of hopped-up multi-genre instrumental that snapped people’s heads around in 1989. A computer-driven light sent the logo from their latest disc “Rocket Science” flying around the Hart Theatre. That logo originated on the Flecktones’ first disc, so the light show could be counted as one last manifestation of the phrase, “Hey, kids! We’re putting the band back together!”
To be honest, I wasn’t greeting this as completely good news. As Levy’s smirking harp melded into the overall sound, I was beset by the same depressing feeling I got when Steps Ahead re-united at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival a few years ago: “Been here, done this. I need NEW memories, not old ones!” Thankfully, it was Levy who brought the change I was looking for. While he primarily stuck with his harmonica in the old days, now he plays piano, too… and BOY, does he play it! It’s a muscular sound that’s got equal helpings of jazz, blues and classical, and Levy took it to some seriously dizzying heights during the two-set show that featured old songs, new songs and (in Levy’s words) “songs we haven’t written yet!” That means there was plenty of improvisation and, by extension, plenty of listening by all four players as they showed the old act still shines like new.
It was the old songs that actually got the biggest boost from the old/new musical sound. They opened the second set with “Blu-Bop,” which originated as a winking nod at the critics who tried to pigeonhole the Flecktones back in the day. The group had fun with time signatures as they passed the solo spot back and forth, with Levy referencing Bernstein and the Beatles in lightning-fast glimpses. But even though this was the Flecktones’ version of an “oldie-but-goodie,” the power Levy’s piano brought to the table really made the piece stand up straight. Then they cooled us down with the samba/grass “Seresta,” as Bela bewitched us on an acoustic banjo/guitar, while Levy got his Vince Guaraldi on, and then things got big and grand again on the new piece “Sweet Pomegranates.” Levy played both his instruments together at times, forming his own one-man band and restoring some of the variation Coffin’s arsenal of reeds and woodwinds used to provide.
Bela Fleck’s still the fastest gun in the west, or in any other direction, and the content he blows by you is staggering, whether he’s playing “standard” banjo or the banjo/guitar hybrids he used throughout the show. The electric hybrid really punched up the encore “Sinister Minister,” which roared with a vitality the original never had, but Bela alone with an acoustic banjo still creates the best kind of musical intimacy, and that’s what he did towards the close of the show. Futureman’s known for his digital percussion, but he mixed in plenty of thunderous analog drumming during his second-set solo spot, and even treated us to some airy R&B vocalese during the first set. Wooten’s solo spot was actually the most disappointing, because it was less about virtuosity than it was about creating loops with his effects box, but the rest of his performance had the knockout quality of a Brock Lesnar haymaker. The whole group got added punching power from special guest fiddler Casey Driessen, who looked for all the world like a rabid IT wonk as he helped cap both sets with a fiery dose of Sparrow Quartet Supergrass.
While I certainly wasn’t depressed any more, I was still kind of torn: Coffin’s contributions made the Flecktones fly in ways the old band never did; however, the raw power Levy’s “new” axe produces grounds the group’s overall sound in the best way possible. At the end of the day, I’m supremely glad this wasn’t an oldies show, and I’m encouraged by Levy’s mention of “songs we haven’t written yet”, because that may mean the band will be maintaining – and expanding on – this direction. If that’s the case, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones’ third decade might be even more interesting than the previous two.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
BELA FLECK & THE FLECKTONES SET LIST
(Victor Wooten solo)
Sex in a Pan
Life in Eleven
(Howard Levy solo)
Flying Saucer Dudes
The Sinister Minister
Set list provided by Michael Hochanadel