Concert review: Just what the doctor ordered
After Bela Fleck and the Flecktones played their third song at the Vilar Center on Friday night, the man next to me turned and said, “Holy s—, these guys are good.” Preconcert conversation with this guy let me know he expected to hear “some really great bluegrass.” Sounds of bluegrass are weaved in and out of the Flecktones’ jams, no doubt. Fleck – who recently received an honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – after all, plays the banjo. But I’d hardly call what the Flecktones create on stage bluegrass. In fact, labeling them with any genre at all is just too limiting for these master musicians. What they create is a seamless meld of jazz, rock, classical, funk and, of course, bluegrass and, at times, all over the course of one song.The third song, which elicited my neighbor’s exclamatory – and blew my hair back, too, by the way – is a super-high-energy number called “Life in Eleven” off their newest album “Rocket Science.” It’s about this time the audience sat up and took notice of the man behind the grand piano with a harp in his mouth – Howard Levy – who was just wailing on the harmonica. Levy is one of the original Flecktones, playing with them from 1988 to 1992 before “disappearing into the shadows,” as Fleck described it to the audience. Now he’s back in full force, a master of the diatonic harmonica. The reintroduction of Levy inspired the Flecktones to create the newest album, and Fleck and Levy won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for the song “Life in Eleven.”Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten joked that “usually when musicians get together after 17 years for a tour, they play their hits. But since we don’t have any hits, we created something new.” Listening in complete awe of how these musicians are so tight that it’s more like watching a perfect human body than a machine or a band perform, I thought about Wooten’s brutal honesty. He’s right: The Flecktones don’t have any hits, per se, at least not the kind of hits that play on the radio and you can sing along to. Yet, here they are playing to a packed house with many, many Grammys under their belts. Fleck, alone, has been nominated for a Grammy in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history. “Everyone is trying to figure him out,” Wooten said.So maybe that’s it – it’s so hard to pin the Flecktones into a genre, one unified hit just won’t emerge. Which is fine with me because the kind of music Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Futureman, the band’s percussionists from outer space, create is best enjoyed in the moment, as it always sounds so spontaneous and free, even when you’re listening to it on CD. Lack of Top 40 doesn’t stop them from building a fan base, which is as diverse as the band’s sound, ranging from jazz cats to Phish heads to lovers of old-timey.The music’s unabashed freedom comes from the playfulness each musician takes with his instrument, a luxury only afforded to masters. At times, Levy’s harmonica sounded like an accordion or even an organ, and with little effort, he busted into a harp solo of “Amazing Grace.” Fiddler Casey Driessen, who joined the band for a couple of numbers, including “Big Country” (arguably Flecktones hit), showed off the diversity of his instrument by scratchin’ it, as if a DJ on a turntable.All of the players took their turns in the spotlight, playing solos that taught us how full each instrument can sound alone, without the other parts of this musical body. When Futureman, whose homemade Synth-Axe Drumitar allows him to play an entire drum kit with the touch of his fingers, played solo, he sounded like an entire marching band. Fleck took his turn last for the encore. He sat quietly on a stool to play homage to one of his mentors, Earl Scruggs, who died recently. Scruggs was known for perfecting the three-finger banjo-picking style you hear in most bluegrass music. And Fleck stuck to the genre. So I guess my neighbor got his “really great” bluegrass after all.Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail.