I wasn’t going to write a review, thanks to a bad back and doctor’s orders not to sit at the computer this week. But three days after Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones played the Union Theater, I’m still obsessed. “Sunset Road” (from the concert, but originally recorded on the band’s first, eponomyously titled 1990 Warner Brothers album) loops continuously through my head. While trying to do other things I find myself surfing the web, hunting YouTube videos – none of which do justice to the sheer genius of this band live in performance. But here’s a goodie, shot in Prague in ’09, featuring the original Flecktones – Fleck himself, the banjo maestro; piano man / blues harpist Howard Levy (aka Skokie Slim), and the Wooten Brothers – bass boss Victor and the indomitable FutureMan, inventor of the amazing Drumitar:
For the Mad City show wildman bluegrass fiddler and frequent Flecktone collaborator Casey Driessen joined the quirky quartet on several tunes.
The Flectones’ unique sound defies classification, so I’ll just call it jazz. Thursday night the band carried off some of the most simpatico improvisation you could ever hope to hear. These players are alchemists wielding a host of harmonic structures and a bag of tricky time signatures, melding genres you know well into sparkly new material. Sure, it’s hip to mix styles these days, but it's the Flecktones who're blasting the phenomenon we call music into the future. No wonder the title of the new Original Flecktones album (Entertainment One Music, 2011) is Rocket Science.
Here’s how the blastoff sounds, rendered in brief, inefficient words: Fleck’s fleet-fingered licks travel full-circle, welding bluegrass, bop, and hints of the banjo’s West African roots. Levy tosses snippets of “On Wisconsin” and Bach Cantata No. 147 ("Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring") into a Chicago-style blues harp solo that sounds like a whole band all by itself; he plays a wry stride piano run, then stretches out on a Monk-like solo, sneaking in a sole montuno. Wooten’s funky, funky slap bass synchs with a thousand heartbeats, weaving whole cloth from a diverse, full-house audience. FutureMan dances out polyrhythms, Drumitar in hand, sitting on a cajón that sports a pair of metal castanets for added nuance.
And that's not all. The Flecktones play more for the joy of it than for the money. They ran at least twenty minutes over the standard 90-minute show before tearing into their finale, a Flecktoned take on the Beverley Hillbillies theme. The crowd, cheering throughout the show, went wild. Two roaring standing ovations brought two rafter-raising encores. That’s proof enough for me. The Union Theater, which shuts down for rennovation this summer, re-opens in fall, 2014. From my opinionated perspective, the Flecktones belong on the bill for the grand re-opening season.