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Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany, NY
April 18, 2006

by J Hunter

Back in the day, when Freihofer's was still known as the Newport Jazz Festival/Saratoga, the opening act one Saturday turned the crowd's attitude from “Who cares?” to “Who the (BLEEP) are those guys?” The “guys” in question were a young group called Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. All most people knew about them was the video for their song “Sinister Minister” was all over VH1. This weird-looking quartet took the normally jaded SPAC crowd from blasé inattention to boisterous applause in just under an hour.

In a review for the Glens Falls Chronicle I wrote, tongue only slightly in cheek: “Funk/jazz banjo - the wave of the future!” Sixteen years later, I had to be shoehorned into a space next to the soundboard at the Hart Theatre, because the house could have been sold out twice. Bela Fleck & the Flecktones were back on tour after a year's hiatus, and fans had come from as far away as Quebec to get a taste.

Fleck and his compatriots - bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, and drummer/percussionist/mechanical genius Futureman - have become touchstones for several musical camps: Fusion fans yearning for something besides jazzed-up Prog Rock; Jam Band devotees searching for a little content; and original Deadheads needing an evolving musical scene. All these groups, and more, roared their approval when the Flecktones came on without introduction and jumped right into “Kaleidoscope”, a cut off their new disc The Hidden Land (Columbia).

Most of the two-set performance was made up of music from Hidden Land; Flecktone oldies were few and far between, and “Sinister Minister” didn't even make an appearance - a shock to those who've followed the band from the start. But that shock was retroactive, because the new material had the same hypnotic effect Flecktone tunes have always had, and the end of every song brought a louder and louder ovation.

The chemistry between the four players made you think the layoff was just a rumor, because they handled the multiple time changes and solo tradeoffs with the efficiency of the computers that handled the band's multicolored light show (an accoutrement more suited to Coldplay or the Dave Matthews band). The sound is still groove-based “funk/jazz banjo”; how could it not be, given Wooten's layers-thick bottom lines and Fleck's flying fingers? (“He plays the banjo in about a dozen different languages,” Coffin said at one point.) And while “Sinister Minister” may not have been in attendance, the new tune “P-Lod In The House” (hilariously introduced by Futureman as a song he heard in a dream) shows the band still embraces the silly while maintaining musical quality.

The differences are twofold: First, there's Coffin, who was new to the Flecktones when I saw them open for Dave Matthews 10 years ago. The bald musical Renaissance man can not only hold his own with the three great musicians he shares the stage with, but he brings a new texture and color with every instrument he plays - and he plays a ton of instruments! My favorite of all his work was his clarinet lines on “Who's Got Three”, a swing-infused tribute to Fleck's grandfather, who gave Bela his first banjo.

The second is what changes us all: Maturity. Playing other music with other people has helped the Flecktones grow, both as players and writers. Asian, African, and Island influences could be heard in Futureman's solo set, which included him pounding (Horrors!) an analog drum set with one hand while playing his Drumitar with the other. Africa was represented in Fleck's solo acoustic spot, right up there with “O Susanna” and the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies”. (“Thanks, Grandpa!” a girl yelled out at the end of the terrific medley.)

Wild lightshow aside, this is (from a personal standpoint) a more relaxed Flecktones. Gone are Futureman's Barbary Coast Pirate On Acid Outfits, along with Wooten's need to dress (and rap) like Chuck D's goofy little brother. Now the music can stand on its own, without theatrics. It - like the band - is always brilliant, occasionally comical, and definitely beyond characterization.

But if you have to have a hook to hang it on, allow me to paraphrase the great Charles Mingus: “Can't you just call it 'Flecktones music'?”

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.