EDITOR’S NOTE: Let’s hear it for social media serendipity. When well-known local writer and musician Mary Pat Hyland mentioned on Facebook that she planned to attend the Béla Fleck concert, I naturally asked, “Do you want to write about it?” … and she did!
Reviewed by Mary Pat Hyland
On Aug. 15, 1991, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones packed the cozy Art Theatre on Binghamton’s South Side as part of the tour for their album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. It was one of the best concerts I ever attended, and the innovative extended solo by Victor Wooten went down as the best live bass performance I have ever heard. Truly a tough act to follow.
The Flecktones were founded in 1988 for a PBS gig, and Fleck once said their concept was a band “where each person was reinventing their instruments, where every one of us was a kind of mutant.” Forget mutants. They must be from another planet, because what they do is not humanly possible.
The original quartet included Fleck on banjo; Wooten on bass; his brother, Roy “Futureman” Wooten on percussion/drumitar (an instrument he created — picture a guitar-shaped electronic drum set), and Howard Levy on piano/harmonica. They mastered the art of bending music genres, exploring the edges of jazz fusion, progressive bluegrass and world beats while dabbling in a little be-bop and a whole lotta funk.
Levy left in 1992, and the band continued as a trio for a while before adding other various musicians. The original members stayed in touch and wanted to continue the experiment begun in the 80s. They got back together in 2011 and recorded the album Rocket Science, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.
After a four-year hiatus, the original members have reunited once more for a two-week U.S. tour. On Tuesday (June 7) the multi-Grammy Award-winning group performed at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center in the Osterhout Concert Theater.
Though the crowd was smaller than the typical attendance at summer series events, it welcomed the band to the stage with a standing ovation. That enthusiasm set the tone for a masterful show that took the audience far beyond the frontiers of conventional sound.
Immediately it was apparent that the audience was not merely in the presence of fine musicians. These four artists are virtuosos. You see, the Flecktones are not hampered by the conventions of everyday music. Why play a tune in a single time signature when you can play it in multiple time signatures? Their riffs sample the broad spectrum of music genres, from Latin rhythms to hillbilly hoedowns, Bulgarian vibes to surf music, played with a flurry of notes that sound like Charlie Parker on steroids. This is no stuffed shirt, highbrow crew. What comes across in every tune is the relaxed, unbridled joy they experience jamming together onstage.
Twenty-five years of experience perfecting their craft has matured and elevated their music ability far beyond what it was in 1991. The band revisited crowd favorites that included “Blu-Bop,” “Sunset Road,” “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” “Mars Needs Women,” “Life in Eleven,” “Life Without Elvis” — which hadn’t been performed live since 1992 — and a blistering encore of “The Sinister Minister.” They sounded at the peak of their abilities as each stepped into the spotlight.
Fleck sets the bar high for his bandmates, sometimes channeling Bach in the way he plays two separate melodies at the same time on the five-string banjo and then managing to sound almost Hendrix-like on electric banjo. Levy can make one howling harmonica sound like a chorus of them. He’s equally fluid on the piano and even the tin whistle on the Celtic tune “True North.”
Futureman sometimes multi-tasks by playing a small drum kit with his right hand while keeping beat on the drumitar with his left. His solo on “Life Without Elvis” invoked the cymbal-crashing passion of Gene Krupa. And Victor Wooten … well, he’s probably the greatest living electric bass player. In his hands the bass is hammered like a piano, slapped like a conga skin and plucked in quicksilver runs that make you shake your head as you think “How is playing that way even possible?”
Béla Fleck and The Flecktones gave the audience jaw-dropping performances infused with good humor and fun. You left the theater thinking it was a privilege to be their audience. And, oh, that Victor Wooten solo from 1991? He topped it with his mind-blowing performance in the band’s epic riff-exchanging encore.
What an excellent show.
Hyland is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. Her latest novel, a rock ’n’ roll mystery set in the Finger Lakes, will be published this month.