Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
Culture Room, Fort Lauderdale
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Better Than: Bela Fleck & the Flecktones with Jeff Coffin on saxophone.
Hot off their chart-topping new album, Rocket Science, with the original Flecktones lineup of Victor Wooten (bass), Roy "Future Man" Wooten (drumitar, percussion), and Howard Levy (piano, harmonica), Bela Fleck (banjo) and the guys proved that after more than 20 years, they are still pushing the progressive envelope. As masters of their respective instruments and possessing a reputation of defying genre classification, a certain level of expectation precedes the outfit. The group is more about jazzing up world rhythms than sticking to jazz molds and more inclined to fuse bluegrass and funk than dwell in the fusion spectrum. After an extensive summer tour playing theaters, sheds, and festivals all over the U.S. and Canada, the quartet of virtuosos kicked of an early October run through the South that included a stop at the intimate Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale.
The Culture Room was filled
to capacity when the guys took up their respective instruments. The start of the set was
oddly punctual and kicked off right around the 9 p.m. mark. "Gravity
Lane," the opening track off the new album, served as a warm-up tune before the
band launched into a series of greatest hits, crowd favorites, and choice new
selections. A theme of using older tracks as jump-off points for segues into fresh material from Rocket Science worked
well in maintaining a balance of sound range and the audience's attention.
"Sex in a Pan" from 1992's UFO Tofu was
phased into "Life in Eleven," a Levy track that references his use of
11/8 time, something he calls, "really funky but to me feels totally
normal." That is not normal, but this is the same guy who was the first
to use overblow and overdraw techniques for chromatic playing on the
diatonic harmonica. Another UFO track came with an upbeat version
of "The Yee-Haw Factor" before dropping into a smoothly slowed-down
and jazzed-out "Prickly Pair."
Grammy-nominated violinist Casey Driessen came out to
show off his violin skill set and engaged Levy in multiple duels. The
each was debatable, but the competition pushed the entire band into high-energy
peaks that were rewarded by ovations from the audience. He would return a
handful of times throughout the night. Things went way back to the
self-titled record next with "Flipper" and "Sunset Road" sandwiching
1991's "Flying Saucer Dudes" from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. Old-school fans were elated by the series of throwback cuts, and the band
rewarded the crowd energy with jaw-dropping solo trading. Whether it was
Fleck switching between his traditional and rock-guitar-tone banjos,
Future Man on the drumitar or traditional kit, Levy on harmonica or
Steinway baby grand, or Wooten on his yin-yang four-string or aquamarine five-string bass, the multidimensional conglomerate held nothing back.
The two-hour, 40-minute set continued with two more new
songs before crushing both crowd favorites "Sinister Minister" and
"Blu-bop." Fittingly bookending the set where "Gravity Lane" began, the
guys extended the bass-driven "Bottle Rocket," the final track of Rocket Science, before walking off stage.
insatiable crowd took the opportunity to release a great deal of pent-up energy that brought a smiling band back onstage. The final result
can only be called an exposition on how Fleck can capture such a large
amount of sound while alone on stage. Let's just say he even tried to
play with his teeth. Future Man was also left to his own devices as he
put on a drum clinic before the band returned to the stage to round out
the encore with an Earth-shattering bass solo from Wooten during "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo."
Critic's Notebook:The crowd: A top-heavy mix of an older crowd and energetic young jazz heads. The room was packed from wall to wall, with little room to move.
Personal bias: First time seeing the original lineup, and Levy stole the
show with the dynamic and energy he brings to the band. The tracks from Rocket Science bring back the original
sound combined with musical evolution and wisdom.
Overheard: "So I got to Fort Lauderdale and went to one of those massage
parlors... yeah" -- Victor Wooten in between songs. Intermittent bursts of the loudest yelling possible by a particularly
excitable member of the audience.