EUREKA: BELA FLECK FINDS IT IN ARKANSAS

Eureka is Greek for "I found it." Well I sure found it--two free press passes for a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones concert compliments of saxophonist David Renko of the local Fayetteville icon The Cate Brothers Band.

When I was five years old I remember struggling up huge stairwells and steep winding sidewalks holding my mother's hand as she would drag me in and out stores in a town with old world charm and European flavor. When I was thirteen I remember waking up to the smell of breakfast with my dad playing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. Indeed, two of my favorite forces of energy, a town and a band, have fatefully drawn themselves together at the 75-year-old Auditorium in the appropriate little world of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Acclaimed Grammy-winners Bela Fleck and the Flecktones just released their latest three disc set Little Worlds. This album is difficult to classify as a specific genre, with music influenced from the band's numerous world travels and Futureman's musical inventions. I'd classify it as a musical matrix blend of global sound. If you must name it something it would be fused jazz, classical, and bluegrass... I guess.

Bela (pronounced Bay-la) Fleck, a New York native, was given a banjo at the age of 13 by his grandfather. On an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS this past week, Bela said, "Yeah, it was kind of weird carrying around a banjo case in a high school of New York City." Influenced by the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bela eventually moved to Kentucky were he perfected and practiced a bluegrass style of the banjo. Scruggs is some times "cheesily" recognized for composing the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies, the "Ballad of Jed Clampett." Yet it is this very ballad that Bela has brought back to life with the flare of Atlanta female rapper Divinity on Little Worlds. In 1982, Bela and fellow bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush had established themselves in a most successful bluegrass band called the New Grass Revival. In 1989 New Grass Revival gave their last performance, opening up for the Grateful Dead's New Year's Eve show at the Oakland Coliseum. By this time Bela had already had his eye on the Wooten brothers from Virginia, who shared the same obsession with music and had some of the same musical influences (such as Chick Corea). The Wooten Brothers had already been playing all of their lives and had a band called "The Wooten Brothers Band" which played covers and opened concert tours for artist such as Curtis Mayfield and War.

Bela commented in May 2000 in an issue of Down Beat that "the more diverse the audience there is, the better. If you got people who would normally be jazz fans sitting in the same room with people who love bluegrass, some funk fans who love Victor, some Deadheads, it turns into this roomful of happy people who are real different." Well the audience in Eureka Springs on this night was exactly that, and maybe a little more. Deadheads, families, babies, kids, and pregnant ladies--they were all accounted for and all grinning ear to ear with Flecktone joy. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of.

The band started off with a very appropriate "Earth Jam." It wasn't until the second song I felt like they were warmed up and broke into a new tune, "Mudslingers of the Milky Way," which you'll have to hear for yourself. Bela said, "We'll be doing a lot from Little Worlds. We hope you enjoy it." Then they played a much obliged "Celtic Melody" into "New Math." "New Math" is a new song that shows off the 'Tones' latest addition, Jeff Coffin. Jeff is known for his philosophy that "the fact that music has the power to bring about change, create emotions, and to heal and nourish shows me that everything is connected at its root: every culture and society in the world has music." To this I have to say "Well I'll be damned, he hit the nail on the head."

Futureman must have come back from the future, MAN! With a bright round spotlight on his jeweled pirate hat and dreads, he navigated his way around his sea of instruments during his solo. As if his first invention, the groundbreaking percussion of the SynthAxe Drumitar wasn't enough, Futureman has created another new instrument unlike anything on this planet. The new "RoyEl" is an instrument shaped like a small piano that Futureman has to stoop over to play. An image of Schroeder form Charlie Brown popped into my head when I first saw him playing it. The keys are styled after the table of periodic elements. So, it is no surprise Futureman has found a way to incorporate a plethora of earthy sounds into the band's mix. He clearly displayed how he can pull apart these tones and then draw them back together like electrons to elicit strong crowd applause.

Bela joined in on the Mother Nature sounds Futureman is giving off, and they jammed into "Scratch and Sniff." What a great name for a song that leaves you curious at first, with a heavy saxophone Sanford and Son tease in the middle (usually), and pleased in the end with a smooth yet upbeat closing segment. The first set left me ecstatic.

I found myself wandering the Auditorium up three flights of classic wooden stairs to the balcony. I noticed the walls were clothed in 30-foot long blood red velvet drapes. I was able to see the newly renovated ceiling was freshly painted in shades of white and ivory, and when the lights went back down I noticed the beautiful chandeliers.

Victor Wooten (the only bassist to win "Bass Player of the Year" twice by Bass Player magazine) appears from the left and the spotlight triggers him into a slow and soft bass line. I was thrilled because I knew we were about to have a few minutes of just Victor doing his loop-di-loop funky stuff. I was right. He began to loop bass scales with three finger flops into jazzy combinations embedded with a tiny "dink" in the middle. Then he created a two turntable scratching sound bringing some hip-hop to the house.

Then Jeff peaked in on the sax, Futureman next with a soft tap and drag on the cymbals, and Bela from the right with his pre-war Gibson banjo. They took off on a cosmic blend of sound that left my eyes closed and my mind in an "OM" trance. Bela had a soft and angelic solo during the heart of the song that I learned later was a new one, titled "Sleeper." Bela then went to pick up his Deering Crossfire Electric Banjo. This next song was titled "Vix 9," and with Futureman on the Drumitar it was a very tight jam, laid in and out with the sequenced lights that gave a lightning storm feel. The applause was noisy and lengthy.

Futureman walked over to his brother and Zoom! One could actually see the magic in the air. There's something about brothers that have been playing their whole lives together that is the unexplainable. Next, Bela picked up the Gibson banjo and Jeff the flute for a nerdy number titled "Poindexter." Futureman was on "the box;" literally he sits on this box and plays it by rapping his one free hand from the Drumitar on the corner of this two-foot tall box. After this song Bela took the mic to say, "Glad to be back so soon, I think we're going to make it a regular stop." The crowd roared--I jumped up and gave high fives and hugs to the strangers on either side of me. Futureman introduced the next song by saying "this song is an old barbershop singing style song titled "Snatchin'." They jumped into a pool of harmonies and climbed out with a crazy whopping effect while Bela had on the Deering.

Victor then graced the town with compliments before introducing the climax of the show "Nice shops, nice people, we'll have to see you again. We want to give an acoustic unplugged act; ladies and gentleman, the man that has won two classical Grammy's with Nashville Symphony Orchestra--the man breaking all the rules, Mr. Bela Fleck." And with that introduction, the spotlight hit Bela, Gibson in hand, center stage. Bela soon started pickin' his nose with the banjo or pickin' the banjo with his nose. Only Bela knows what his nose knows! After all the awe and chuckling died down Bela went back into a classical style of playing. I closed my eyes and escaped into my own little world, of course. I woke up to the venue singing "All we need is love" by The Beatles. Bela put his hand to his ear where Paul usually would say "All together now" to provoke the crowd to continue singing the chorus and end the song with "Love is all you need."

"Puffy" was the encore. I love "Puffy." This new song is fun and uplifting. A few ducks couldn't help themselves from shaking a tail feather in the front of the venue. At least they where pretty ducks. Well... one young ugly duckling had to get up in Victor's face. Bela reached around to the front of his banjo when he and Jeff teased each other on center stage with blips of sound while they would flap their elbows out and squat down and back up again laughing at each other. When they all came to center stage I had just recognized the essence of a yin yang with the lighting on all four of their heads. Then BAM! Like an atomic bomb hit--no sound. They all grabbed each other and bowed and rose up smiling and giggling at the massive clapping and hoots and hollers Eureka Springs had to offer. They threw red hippos to the crowd and that was the end of the show. The hippos used to be pink, now they look like hogs. Hmmmmm?!

This is a band of rebellious musicians slash scientists that simply "break all the rules." Not only have they mastered their instruments, but also they take them to the next level by creating sounds with technology and new age gear. These new age devices allow them to loop sampled sound over and over again and actually store an almost infinite number of sounds on hard drives. Futureman's Drumitar is velocity sensitive, which means the harder he hits the keys the louder the sound the audience hears. Futureman has his first solo CD titled Seamless Script that introduces the new creation "RoyEl," which in his words "introduces pi (3.14159) as a transcendental musical truth."

You never know what to expect with the Flecktones. Because they are a band that prides themselves on over 200 shows a year, they are constantly touring all over the world and their mood and sound evolve over that time. I wonder what Flatt and Scruggs would have come up with if they had been able to travel around the world in their 21 years together? With technology constantly progressing and the various styles of music around the world, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones may have just begun.

Words by: Ginelle Cloar
Images by: Jeremy Scott
JamBase | Arkansas
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[Published on: 11/24/03]

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