Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Some bands are renowned for the intensity and inventiveness of their concerts. The Flecktones, with their unusual blend of instruments and musical personalities, certainly fit into this category. Playing tunes that veered all over the musical map, they put on an excellent display of just how exciting a live performance can be.
This reputation for expansive, enlightening jamming has earned the Flecktones a loyal audience typical of the notorious “jam band” crowd. Let’s just say that the Uptown’s antismoking rule did not seem to dissuade anyone from sampling their favorite herbal supplements. Béla Fleck and his compatriots dutifully rewarded their faithful constituents, uncorking solo after impressive solo as the night progressed. Fleck, the most musically accomplished band member, contributed phenomenal banjo work that encapsulated just about every style of music imaginable. He provided soft, melodic runs on most of the ballads and picked his way through some beautiful bluegrass runs on such gems as “Sinister Minister.” It’s clear that the other members of the band follow Fleck’s lead on most tracks, and he proved consistently capable of leading them into unexpected harmonic territory.
Equally impressive is bassist Victor Wooten, who earned the crowd’s untempered adulation with his stunning 17-minute bass solo midway through the band’s opening set. Juxtaposing rhythmic crescendos with funky melodic lines, Wooten displayed a prodigious talent. When he concluded his solo performance with a set of variations on “Amazing Grace,” the crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Wooten’s brother Future Man played the drumitar, a bastardized amalgamation of the drum and synthesizer. At times, Future Man would use a free hand to bang away at a small drum set by his sides, providing the best one-armed solos this side of a Def Leppard show. He and his brother have a strong sense of funk in their jazzy improvisations, and their abilities perfectly accentuate Fleck’s legendary banjo work. Newcomer James Coffin provided able, if not stunning, assistance with a variety of reed instruments. His style was occasionally overly abrasive, but he did manage to incorporate a few good chops into such expansive compositions as “Earth Jam.”
Any complaints about the evening’s performance from Fleck’s fans would undoubtedly center on the choice of material. Rather than supporting their most recent release, the contract-fulfilling Warner Brothers release Greatest Hits of the Twentieth Century, Fleck and company mostly examined cuts from their upcoming Columbia album. This led to a lot of unknown material, but the fans didn’t seem to mind.
If anything, the newer cuts emphasized a movement away from Fleck’s more traditional, bluegrass-tinged pieces. His banjo work becomes jazzier and less grounded as the years progress, and many of the newer tunes lacked the punch and vitality of the band’s earlier recordings. A propulsive run-through of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-down,” however, showed that the Flecktones are still able to impress when they are improvising upon a strong foundation.