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Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

(feat. Andy Statman)
Hart Theatre @ The Egg
Albany, NY
December 9, 2008

by J Hunter

Before I got to make snarky comments on web sites, I made my living as a radio announcer. Among the many downsides of that career choice was having to listen to Kenny G, Dan Fogelberg, Elmo & Patsy, and every other kind of seasonal schmaltz for at least four hours a day, six days a week, over 13 straight holiday seasons. It’s no surprise then that, by the time Christmas Day rolled around, I could seriously get behind Scrooge!
As a result of this prolonged trauma (which, you’ll be surprised to know, is not covered by Workmen’s Comp), I have spent many a year looking for Christmas music that sounded nothing like what we all heard when our parents switched the TV to “The Yule Log” every Christmas Eve. Jazz and blues have provided me with more palatable holiday tuneage, such as Louis Armstrong’s “Is That You, Santa Claus” and the original “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Charles Brown. But Béla Fleck & the Flecktones knocked all options off the table last Wednesday with their first-ever holiday show at the Egg.
It sounded like a goof when I heard the Flecktones’ new disc was a Christmas album. I mean, that’s the kind of thing artists do when they haven’t got anything else to release! Guess the joke’s on me: Jingle All the Way (Rounder, 2008) is #1 on the Contemporary jazz charts, and has been nominated for two Grammy Awards. And I can assure you that Béla and his merry band of pranksters – bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, and Drumitar inventor Roy “Futureman” Wooten – were completely serious (or, at least, as serious as they’re capable of being) as they gave us two delightfully twisted sets that re-defined how holiday music should be played.
After an opening jam that was everything Fleckheads have come to expect from this extraordinarily talented group, Coffin traded his tenor sax for a flute and took the lead on a funky bluegrass version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” If they’d just stayed with that one tune, I’m sure they could have morphed it into a free-standing funfest. Instead, the Flecktones started playing or sub-referencing a slew of holiday hits – all of them slightly skewed, and just like all actors lead back to Kevin Bacon, all the Christmas songs led back to “We Wish You…” Among the marvelously re-invented classics included “Frosty the Snowman”, “My Favorite Things”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “We Three Kings.” It was a wonderful achievement, but it wasn’t even the best one of the night.
It also wasn’t the only medley of the night, as the Flecktones took one of Dean Martin’s favorite Christams Special tricks and gave it their own spin: Coffin stepped offstage so three tunes from A Charlie Brown Christmas (including the iconic “Linus & Lucy”) could be played as a trio – the same format Vince Guaraldi used, if not the same form; Fleck tied “Jingle Bells”, “Joy to the World”, and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” together during a beautiful, intimate solo spot; and multi-instrumentalist Andy Statman helped the Flecktones close the first set by linking a klezmer-flavored “Silent Night” with a blistering bluegrass “Sleigh Ride” that was more like “Sleigh Ride Down a Mountain with No Brakes and the Horse Running Behind, Trying to Catch Up.”
A klezmer legend who studied with David Grisman and played with Bob Dylan, Statman is one of many guest artists that make Jingle such a pleasure, contributing the traditional “Hanukkah Waltz” to a set of music that is truly international. Staman’s clarinet and mandolin work added immeasurably to the Flecktones’ color palate on this evening, and he dove happily into the band’s cartoon world as he sat in for the entire second set. During that set, Béla informed us that they would be doing “The 12 Days of Christmas” in a very special way (“Just to make it interesting…”): Each day would be in a different key, and would be done in a different tempo. “How many people think this is a joke,” Fleck asked the crowd. Behind him, all the other Flecktones raised their hands; Statman just stood their smiling. Béla looked at him affectionately, “My man!” (P.S. They not only did it the way Fleck said they’d do it, but the results were utterly fantastic!)
It’s doubtful an annual Flecktones Holiday Tour will ever out-gross Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the box office, but then we are talking apples and oranges here: The Flecktones’ light show won’t make you blind; their sound system won’t give you irreparable hearing loss; and the Flecktones’ music really brings you back to the unfettered joy that the holidays should be about. The downside? You’ll never hear this music on “The Yule Log.” And that’s a damn shame.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.