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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.

Album Review: Béla Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder)


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MP3: Béla Fleck – Djorolen (with Oumou Sangaré)

This is a special album, the likes of which you won’t get to experience many times in a cloistered, Western musical experience.

A little bit of backstory: Béla Fleck, everyone’s favorite (or least favorite, depending on your tastes and outlook) virtuoso instrumentalist takes a bit of a soul-searching journey. Fleck undertook Throw Down Your Heart, a project to create a movie about his travels and explorations through Africa, searching out the origins of his musical love: the banjo, and making some great music along the way. It is perhaps a little known fact that the banjo’s origins lay in Earth’s oldest inhabited territory, rather than in its more commonly known trappings as a staple of Appalachian and rural American music.

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Interview: Bela Fleck

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MP3: Bela Fleck – Foggy Mountain Special from Bluegrass Sessions V.2

If you are a musician, especially an instrumentalist, you have likely heard the name Bela Fleck. If you are a lover of bluegrass, you have likely heard the name Bela Fleck. If you are a banjo lover, you have likely heard the name Bela Fleck.

The list goes on, endlessly. Bela Fleck is one of the most versatile musicians of our time, excelling as both a genre-defying instrumentalist and an arranger. His instrument of choice: the banjo. Raised in New York City and named after the famed composers Bartok, Dvorak and Janacek, he has quite a legacy to live up to. Like so many others, Bela started out on the guitar. But his love of Earl Scruggs’ definitive banjo work in bluegrass and country quickly swayed him onto the banjo. Like the next logical progression from Scruggs, Fleck takes many of the aspects that Scruggs introduced into bluegrass (strong jazz influence, lyrical quality, fluid phrasing, awe-inspiring and complex licks) and takes them to the next level.
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Bonnaroo 2008: Day 3 in Review

nice sax and tubaAs I meandered over to the Which Stage to wait for Sharon Jones, I heard strains of brass-driven jazz.  Soul Rebels Brass Band weren’t in the booklet schedule, but they more than satisfied my desire for groovy funk.  They combine a hip-hop approach to performance with jazz, funk and reggae.  Obviously really talented instrumentalists and veteran jamsters, they formed some tight, impromptu sounding grooves that really energized the crowd.

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Bonnaroo 2008: Day 2 in Review

Though I’ve seen the Fiery Furnaces (Wiki) twice before, I decided to go after their set at the That Tent since the two previous shows had been like night and day, presenting some of the most musically stimulating and challenging live experiences I’ve ever had.

Their Roo performance proved no different. Read the rest…

Tres Bonn 2008: Bela Fleck

Notice to reader: you are far from Hollywood’s portrayal of banjo players. Throw out the image of that porch-dwelling, uncultured farmer chewing on a sliver of hay.

Béla Fleck (Wiki) is an accomplished, virtuoso-level instrumentalist who I can’t wait to see with Abigail Washburn at Bonnaroo next week. Fleck is New York city native named after famed composer Béla Bartok and has played the banjo since age 15.

Forming the Flecktones in 1989, Fleck and his crew are known for “raging eclecticism,” dwelling on a multitude of genres including jazz, be-bop, bluegrass, country, classical…nearly every genre befitting an advanced instrumentalist and then some. Add in the fact that every member of the Flecktones is renowned in their own right, most notably monster bassist Victor Wooten, and you have some powerhouse music-makers.

Fleck is often attributed as a major force in changing the perception, sound and musicality of the banjo, a flag-bearer simultaneously promoting and validating his instrument of choice in non-traditional circles. With such a massive one-sheet, it’s no surprise that Fleck has become massively influential and an inspiration to innumerable instrumentalists.

I can barely stand the anticipation.

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MP3: Béla Fleck & the Flecktones – Kaleidoscope from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Live at B.B. King’s on 2006-04-21 (April 21, 2006) @ Live Music Archive