in performance: bela fleck and the flecktones

bela fleck and the flecktones: roy "futureman" wooten, howard levy, bela fleck and victor lamonte wooten.

 “Savor every note.” That was the introductory advice Richard Van Kleeck offered last night to a sold out audience at Louisville’s Brown Theatre. Van Kleeck was the former programming executive behind the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ famed Lonesome Pine Special series during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Among his many accomplishments was bringing banjo great Bela Fleck together with three fellow musical journeymen for an August 1988 performance. That was the beginning of the Grammy winning banjo jazz, funk and fusion ensemble known as Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Last night, after a year of touring with its original lineup, the quartet ended its current activities in the city, and alongside the father figure, that brought the band to life.

As sentimental as all that may seem, this exhilarating three hour performance spent little time looking back. There were some welcome retreats back to the three initial Flecktones albums cut before pianist/harmonica ace Howard Levy departed the ranks. But with Levy back on board, the prime focus was on last year’s fine Rocket Science album and the ways the band’s multi-stylistic sound has matured through the years.

The show opening Bottle Rocket (ironically, Rocket Science’s final tune) emphasized just how far that sound has come. It balanced groove-centric rhythms from bassist Victor Lamonte Wooten and percussionist (and elder brother) Roy “Futureman” Wooten. In the other corner sat the more organic, country-savvy leads of Fleck and Levy. So it was perhaps fitting that by the time the tune coalesced it splintered again into a playful reggae strut.

And so it went. Life in Eleven (which won composers Fleck and Levy a Grammy earlier this year) upped the animation with a wheezy barnyard accent on harmonica while Storm Warning ascended from a rumbling bass intro into wild ensemble drama that brought to mind the compositions of another previous Fleck collaborator, Chick Corea.

The best of the Rocket Science works came early into the show’s second set. During a segment of what Fleck termed “unplug-ish” songs (Victor Wooten was still very much amplified), the quartet gathered together at the lip of the stage to explore the appealing lyrical mischief of Gravity Lane, a tune that employed a simple, wistful harmonica riff as a springboard for all kinds of commanding ensemble color.

Each Flecktone was awarded a lengthy solo segment to stretch out in. But Fleck’s spot, an unaccompanied outing on acoustic 5 string banjo, was fashioned as a tribute to the late bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs. It sailed confidently into the various moods and tempos of Scruggs’ compositions and fingering technique before summing up with a slow, almost elegiac version of The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

Perhaps fittingly, Fleck reprised Clampett at the onset of an encore segment on electric banjo with assorted synthesized effects. The brief sonic collage then bled into the 20-plus year old Flecktones fusion favorite, Blu Bop.

Sinister Minister, a concert staple from the band’s 1989 debut album, wound the show, as well as this tenure of the Flecktones, up. Fleck promised the band would return in “another year,” but added, “We don’t exactly know when that year will be.”

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