Words by: Cassie Pence | Images by: Zach Mahone
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones :: 12.19.09 :: Vilar Performing Arts Center :: Beaver Creek, CO
During Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' second set at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, Béla announced that the band would play the hardest song they'd ever attempted to learn.
"We're going to do 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' playing each day in a different key... and in a different time signature," Béla said, largely considered the best banjo player of all time. "We've never made it to 12, so let's see what happens."
In grand gesture, horn player Jeff Coffin waved a white towel as if to surrender, and the rest of the band - Futureman on his homemade percussion machine, the Synthaxe Drumitar, and Victor Wooten on bass - followed suit, wiping their brows in response to the heavy musical task at hand.
To help them out, Futureman called on the audience to sing "five golden rings," with as much vibrato and volume as possible from a packed house, during the song's famous and breathless countdown from Day 12 all the way back to Day 1.
Ready in our seats, the Flecktones took off through the 12 magical days of Christmas, playing with such creative fusion - not to mention their mash-up of meter - that some of the days were only vaguely recognizable. But Coffin, who has a regular gig touring with the Dave Matthews Band, was there to bring us back down to earth, ending each round with a clear and jazzy rendition of "a partridge in a pear tree" on his clarinet, so we knew when to reset.
Of course, the nervous routine was just a charade. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" appears on the Flecktones' Jingle All the Way CD, which won the 2009 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Plus, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything or any genre that would make these heavyweight musicians nervous - more like curious. You have to admit, the stunt of playing 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures is a little music-geeky, but that's why we love them. They explore with the lack of pretension and bright eyes of people new to the art, not like musicians who have mastered it.
With unabashed freedom, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones draw on bluegrass, world music, jazz, funk, country, rock and pop, sometimes all within the same song. Béla, as pointed out by Wooten during the show, has been nominated for a Grammy in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history. He's currently up for three Grammys and has previously won 11.
|Béla Fleck :: 12.19 :: Colorado|
This particular tour was a holiday one, so the bulk of the set was composed of classics like "Silent Night," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," and "Jingle Bells." But just like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," you've never heard classics played like this.
Their rendition of "Sleigh Ride" sounds more like a fast chase between elves and outlaws who stole Santa's sleigh. You can just picture cowboys holding onto their hats as they fly through the night in a hot sleigh with angry little men in red and green trailing behind them and waving their fists.
They did the ever-nostalgic "Charlie Brown Christmas Song," sounding a little like falling snow on the twangy banjo, and the Peanuts' theme song, "Linus and Lucy." Even with such familiar songs it took active audience listening to pull out the tune from the Flecktones' trademark fusion originality.
They deviated a little from the "jingle thing," as Béla called it, playing the soft Latin tune "Lover's Leap" from the album Outbound. Casey Driessen, fiddler extraordinaire, appeared elf-like in his bright green shirt, red tie and red leather shoes to play "Big Country," a song with rolling, pensive fiddle that stirs images of an old friend saying goodbye as they embark on a journey across the American West.
And then there were the solos.
Wooten stole the show with his limelight performance, during which, halfway through, I had to remind myself to close my jaw. It was hanging wide open in amazement at what this man can do with the bass. Innovator is an understatement.
|Driessen & Coffin :: 12.19 :: Colorado|
Even Fleck, when the rest of the band reappeared onstage, said teasingly, "Somebody's been practicing," a nod to his bandmate's prowess. And to keep the audience on its toes during his lucid jams, Wooten likes to throw in licks and choruses from well known songs like "Ice Ice Baby" or The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," humming with his bass, "I once had a girl or should I say she once had me?"
Futureman, decked out in a regal pirate hat complete with a feather plume, started off the second set alone to showcase his homemade instrument, which looks like it was salvaged from a crashed spacecraft. The Synthaxe Drumitar allows Futureman to play an entire drum kit with the touch of his fingers.
"My fingers are the sticks," said Futureman, whose real name is Roy Wooten, brother of Victor. "And everything I am playing here is live."
But the real magic happens when the band is together onstage. They feed off each other's energy, and you can see the playful banter unfolding between instruments. Fleck may lean in with the neck of his banjo and Coffin with the end of his sax to drive home the rebuttal - or one-upmanship - in their musical conversation.
Where dialogue ends, harmony begins when the band plays as one unit. It's almost impossible at times to extract the different instruments, to determine where one musician begins and the others end.
For the finale, they brought together their entire jingle at once, playing at least four different Christmas songs at one time. There's never been so much holiday cheer in so many different keys, played in so many different musical genres.
Fleck will be touring with his Africa Project in early 2010. Dates available here.
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