Listen to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' new album The Hidden Land on JamBase Rhapsody!
Words & Images by Robert Massie
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones :: 04.29.06 :: State Theatre - Playhouse Square Center :: Cleveland, OH
It's hard to imagine what it was like for the early explorers of the North American Continent. The excitement of discovering the unknown and the intrinsic need to push boundaries caused these pioneers to leave no step uncharted as they drove deeper and deeper into this land. Well, in a way, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' history has been a similar tale of "musical Manifest Destiny." A modern day melodic version of Lewis and Clark, Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten have forged their way down a winding river of recitals without any secure notion of where the path would ultimately lead, propelled only by their love of their instruments and their desire to conquer unknown territory. With spectacular support from their brothers in the groove (sax-man/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin and synth-axe drumitar inventor and master RoyEl aka Futureman), the Flecktones regularly touch down and lead their loving audiences in a signature rhythmic reconnoitre. This unique journey has lead the band to their perch high atop the pile of touring acts, and their family-friendly expeditions consistently drop jaws of young and old aficionados alike every time they come around. This year, the Flecktones were chosen to headline the 27th annual Tri-C Jazz Fest while touring the nation in support of their recent release The Hidden Land. The album is another foray into the minds of four musical geniuses, and the accompanying stage show is nothing short of sensational. With several thousand fans on hand, the band got down to business and guided the distinguished crowd into yet another evening of unparalleled and unabashed musical exploration.
Bela Fleck :: 04.29 :: Cleveland, OH
This night's voyage began with the new staple "Weed Whacker" > "Couch Potato" and instantly had the audience onboard. Victor Wooten's funky bass line shifted and squirmed around Fleck's banjo as Futureman laid down a brush-filled shuffle and Coffin's alto saxophone soared. Although the two tunes are tracked separately on the band's CD, they have yet to appear live without each other's company. This particular evening, the false endings to "Potato" elicited several giggles and grins from the band and crowd. The song has such a unique vibe, reminiscent of a lazy summer day spent relaxing in the shade while the world slowly saunters by. In just ten short minutes, the band had covered all sorts of terrain, already progressing from funk to bluegrass to jazz to turn-of-the-century, speakeasy-style riffs, but the real gallivanting had just begun. Jeff Coffin pulled out a fife and took some exquisite leads on "The Whistle Tune," another jazzy junket from The Hidden Land. One of the album's standout abstract and groundbreaking tracks, "Rococo" followed and served as a proper segue to Victor Wooten's time in the spotlight. His always inspirational "Amazing Grace" solo followed, and then he laid down some freeform licks that were just spectacular. Wooten's display of "Low End Theory" would even have A Tribe Called Quest taking notes. His personal logo, the Bass clef, was projected on the curtain at the back of the stage as he once again left no doubt that he is the best bass player in the world today. Fleck emerged for a nice series of exchanges and interplays with Wooten before leading the band into a crescendo that swelled and subsided just in time for introductions.
Victor Wooten :: 04.29 :: Cleveland, OH
Not only do the Flecktones change their set list and the structure of their songs every night, their commentaries to the audience truly make the scenery for each outing unique. This night was no exception, as the band cracked some jokes about the Cleveland skyline (or lack thereof) and the unique situation in front of Playhouse Square, where stunt scenes for Spiderman 3 were being filmed. After brief introductions, Bela Fleck urged Futureman to introduce "P-lod in the House" by telling the story of the song's origin. "Futch" explained that he had a dream where Jeff Coffin had written a new song about an alien, and when he woke, the song stuck with him (in true Flecktones form, Coffin is actually credited with writing the song). After the intergalactic voyage of "P-lod," it was only fitting that the band returned to the Earth with something truly special. Show opener and gifted violinist Regina Carter came out for "Sex in a Pan," and although she looked somewhat uncomfortable at first, Carter soon hopped onboard the wagon train and created a dynamic that was certainly one of the highlights of the evening. Trading free-form verses with Wooten, Carter teased everything from Parliament-Funkadelic to Aaron Copeland. Perhaps the single highlight of this leg of the journey was when Carter began to play Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" theme and Wooten hopped right in, mirroring her notes and prompting the band to spontaneously leap into the song for a measure. The group backed out and continued with some intelligent improvisation, finally leaving the stage to Futureman. Although he had some technical problems with a pedal, the visitor from the year 2050 was able to provide an intense set of African-inspired rhythms, culminating in a stick-shattering explosion of beats. Jeff Coffin emerged to help accentuate this percussive pilgrimage, and the two displayed their mastery to the enamored attendees.
Jeff Coffin :: 04.29 :: Cleveland, OH
"Chennai" began the third stretch of this odyssey with a few minutes of spacey riffs from Fleck, but once it dropped in, it was a monster. Jeff Coffin really guides this song with his dancing Middle Eastern flute lines, and the offbeat but intriguing melodies made this song the perfect choice for this position in the show. Not only does this track from The Hidden Land seem like a departure from conventional melody, it truly evokes feelings of traveling clandestinely along some curious countryside. "Who's Got 3?" has been a staple on this tour, and was introduced by an interesting story courtesy of Bela Fleck himself. Fleck explained the song had been written for his late grandfather and was inspired by a story he was told as a kid. It seems that in the early days of movie houses, a matinee would cost five cents for two tickets. Looking for another moviegoer to help finance his leisurely venture, Fleck's grandfather would arrive at the theater and shout, "I've got two, who's got three?" This song has unique emotional qualities, and Jeff Coffin's clarinet accompaniment sets the tone for the interlude, which is then flipped by Wooten and Futureman around the three minute mark. The soaring "Kaleidoscope" followed and pulled the crowd in for a bouncy ride across its melodic mountains and valleys. Finally, it was the "Big Flecktone" Bela Fleck's time to solo, and he did a wonderful job with a traditional piece by Bach. Although he was commenting after the show that he didn't do the best job and "wasn't going to try to play Bach again anytime soon," he could have fooled everyone in attendance. The crowd showed their reverence for the scenic sojourn their skilled tour guides had lead, and the band reciprocated with the incredibly funky "Scratch & Sniff" from 2000's Outbound. Then they took their bow and left the stage.
Future Man :: 04.29 :: Cleveland, OH
It really is incredible how our beloved 'Tones have kept pushing and exploring the music that they love. Too many groups get stuck and simply regurgitate performances while relying on their reputation to pull them through. Yet, these symphonic scouts wouldn't be content resting on their laurels; they have an undeniable and unspoken duty to formulate something new with the weapons in their massive musical toolbox each and every show. I had a brief moment to meet them after the performance, and their positivity and friendliness exceeded any expectations I might have had. They simply sat on the edge of the stage and hung out with their fans in such an unassuming manner. With their down-to-Earth attitudes and their overwhelming sense of integrity, it is apparent that these maestros will continue to inspire generations of musicians and music lovers. It's a simple equation, but it still blows many a mind - take four parts virtuoso, combine it with extraordinary passion for the craft, and it all adds up to the most talented and groundbreaking outfit in the history of avant-garde music. To surrender to the status quo just isn't an option for these incredible instrumentalists – the call to break new ground flows through their veins. And after another excellent and euphonious exploration, the fact remains clear that Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin, and Futureman have continued to persevere and to delve into the unknown as they constantly forge a trail of magical musicianship. What hidden lands will they discover next? Only the future and the road ahead will tell.
The Flecktones :: 04.29 :: Cleveland, OH
One Set: Weed Whacker > Couch Potato, The Whistle Tune, Rococo, Victor Solo > Vic/Bela Jam, P-lod in the House, Sex in a Pan (w/ Regina Carter), Futureman Solo > Futch/Jeff Jam, Chennai, Who's Got 3?, Kaleidoscope, Bela Solo
Encore: Scratch & Sniff
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