Live Review: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore (2009.11.18)

Béla Fleck of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

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MP3: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Sunset Road, Live at Vicar Street (Dublin) on Nov 4 2009 (Live Music Archive)

Let me be plain: you have never seen anything like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

This latest string of US dates is sometimes billed as a reunion of the founding lineup (the first in 18 years), but that’s only technically true.  The Flecktones have toured extensively over the past two decades, but only now are rejoined by “the Tall, Thin Flecktone,” piano and harmonica player Howard Levy.

Individually, each member of the quartet (Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten, Roy “Future Man” Wooten, Harold Levy) is a world-class musician.  There are a very select few people in the world that can handle their respective instruments like these folks can. I’ve honestly never seen someone manhandle a bass like Vic Wooten, nor have I heard the wide range of tones from a harmonica that Harold Levy wrings out.   I’ve not born witness to someone as fleet and nimble on a stringed instrument as Béla Fleck, and I’ve certainly never seen someone other than Future Man play the one-of-a-kind synthaxe drumitar, let alone mix and match that with a drum kit for some otherworldly rhythms.

Watching Béla Fleck play is like an exercise in zen meditation, the perfectly calm Fleck shows no signs of hesitation as he effortlessly navigates a frenzy of picked notes, chopping seconds into ever more minute fractions.  It’s clear to any viewer that for Fleck, the technicality of his music is just a natural tongue.

Howard Levy is somewhat the unsung talent; prior to this show, I had vastly underappreciated his contributions.  But Levy’s precision and speed on the harmonica is inhuman (his piano playing is only above par), and his impassioned solos were lush and bracing.  The deep grooves, ferocious two-hand tapping, and sheer diversity of sounds emanating from Victor Wooten are nothing short of astounding.  Wooten is the most physical and showmanlike of the quartet, his final solo passage in “Sinister Minister” ending in an explosive show of acrobatics where his bass definitely caught some air.

Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

Future Man’s mad alchemy with percussion was at once catchy and dizzying.  Like some sort of beat-making octopus, he has an infinite range of sounds and textures available to him thanks to the combination of his drumitar (1 finger=1 drum) and traditional drum kit.  The words prodigy and virtuoso are used more than they should be; but these words were tailor-made to describe the incomparable talents of the Flecktones.

Some can be fairly dismissive whenever they hear these terms, tuning out and assuming they describe feats of technical wizardry, flashy musical pyrotechnics with little substance.  But in this instance, there is so much more than mechanical prowess at work.  The lyricism, the phrasing, the groove.  The sheer musicality of the Flecktones. All of the highest caliber, shaping their monstrous chops into jaw-droppingly finessed, and catchy songs.  At the root of their music is not mere instrumental fetishism.  Inside, there are true musical journeys and adventures.  The flurry of Wooten’s rapid-fire 128th note runs and mutes build palpable energy and tension.  Admittedly, these can be lost in their recordings, at times the extensive jazz-fusion feeling more coldly academic than musical.  But the Flecktones are truly compelling in the live setting, where they feel more electric, free to stretch their creative muscle.

Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

They brazenly splice insanely complex musical motifs together, but always with their eye on forming lyrical units.  Like the greatest minds of jazz, they pass around a musical theme or story, evolving and contorting it with intense solos that leave their own stamp, all without disrupting the flow of the composition.  Set closing encore “Sunset Road” is a shining example of just how musical the Flecktones’ approach can be: the smoldering and soulful fan favorite, complete with Future Man’s vocals, was deeply affecting.  Their almost complete lack of pretension (amidst a flurry of solo passages) is another remarkable attribute, from the audience’s oohs, ahhs and snaps forming the foundation of “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” to their genuinely humble demeanor and lack of elaborate stage antics.  This is ultimately about four of the world’s most talented people sharing their musical vision.

After leaving a Flecktones show, it really hits home just how singular their music is.  Aside from a stable of heady and abrasive, leftfield noise artists, I am hard-pressed to think of a group that so readily throws any sort of genre distinction or “traditional” notions about music out the door.  It’s all one glorious mish-mash playground for them.  Nothing is safe, from sendups of pop culture riffs (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) to jazz standards (“A Night In Tunisia”).  Anything that falls into the Flecktones orbit instantly becomes part of their distinct aesthetic, a forward-looking yet familiar melange that rearranges the various motifs of jazz, bluegrass, rock, blues, fusion, jam, funk and anything else they want into something unquestionably Flecktones.

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