Concert review: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones reunite at the Sheldon, Thursday, March 29
The lights dimmed to darkness in the Sheldon Concert Hall to signal the Flecktones making their way to the stage. A moment of quiet settled in.
A couple of whoops rang out, an audience member yelled, “God Bless Earl Scruggs!” and Béla Fleck was off in a flurry of rolling picking on the banjo. Soon Howard Levy followed and the rest of the Flecktones joined in, beginning their set in an exciting whirl.
The Flecktones are a six-time Grammy-winning band — and a many more time nominee. Their original music continues to evolve around the talent of ever-changing members. The current band is comprised of the original Flecktone members who have not toured together since 1992. Béla Fleck is a prodigious banjo player as well as the band leader. Victor Wooten is the renowned bassist whose ability to play expressive and technically challenging parts has made him a bass hero to musicians globally. Roy “Futureman” Wooten plays an instrument of his own design: the drumitar, which in essence comprises all of the group’s percussion. Howard Levy, who has returned to the group after an almost 20-year hiatus, is on piano and harmonica.
The Flecktones followed the opening number with a beautifully melodious song allowing for bit of release from the tensely engaging introduction, and then their odd-time signature song “Life in Eleven,” which is in different 11-count time signatures. Of course this might only be noted by frustrated musicians trying to count it since the song is aesthetically pleasing as well as the 2011 Grammy Award winner for Best Instrumental Composition. It is definitely one of my favorites.
Victor Wooten amazed the audience with a performance on bass and loop pedal. At this point in our culture looping is no longer a novel product; overdubbing dates back several decades. So what Wooten was performing was well understood by the audience, yet remained a fresh component of the performance overall. Wooten composed a medley of songs and his own improvisations; at one point we were surprised with the bass line to the theme music of the movie “Shaft.” Later in the performance he played each note in a melody, delayed by the time for the overdub loop to come full circle, adding a single note to the previous each time around. All during Wooten’s solo performance I felt in awe of how technically challenging yet musically satisfying the performance was. His ability to push the boundaries of the possible with his performance and keep it feeling musical was inspiring.
Casey Driessen, a phenomenal fiddle player, surprised with a song in which the Flecktones traded solos so rapidly and so randomly (apparently) that the spotlight operator could not keep up with them. It was somewhat like being on a roller coaster ride at full speed while trying to look around and figure out where your friends are on the ground waiting for you. Later Casey performed a percussive solo on the fiddle; it was unlike anything I have heard or seen played on anything even resembling a fiddle.
The Flecktones were full of surprises as they presented a new song never before done in public; the band proceeded to venture into the unknown and deliver a wonderful performance. Fleck used a type of African banjo for the new song; the instrument had a more subtle, deeper tone than the others he used. Fleck then kicked off a medley of Earl Scruggs songs in an astounding homage to the late, great banjo player. For the encore the Flecktones played an incredible rendition of their “Sinister Minister,” reminding us once again where they had come from and where they had taken their music.
In a recent interview Fleck described Levy’s reunion with the Flecktones and their new album “Rocket Science”: “We needed to record new music, or you know, it was just going to be a reunion tour. I wanted to do what the band was originally supposed to be — pushing all four of us to new ground.” The performance of Béla Fleck and Flecktones at the Sheldon definitely embodied this vision.