Fantastic Voyage: Belá Fleck and the Flecktones
By Brett Sigurdson, Burlington Writers Workshop
A review of Belá Fleck and the Flecktones, who performed June 9 under the Waterfront Tent for Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.
As I watched Belá Fleck and the Flecktones under the Waterfront Tent on Thursday, I couldn’t help but think of the relationship between audience and performer. What do we hope to experience when hearing a band play live music, I wondered. Entertainment, diversion, ecstasy? And if it’s the latter, under what conditions do we as an audience feel the white heat of a band doing musical alchemy before our eyes?
Speaking of heat, I apparently wasn’t alone in thinking about it on this night. Many concertgoers outfitted themselves in sweaters, jackets, long pants, and even stocking hats to warm against the mid-June freeze. The band itself showed it had lost none of its heat after collectively being away from the stage since 2012—even longer if you count the tenure of old-new member Howard Levy, the band’s original piano player and harmonicist, who last was a Flecktone in 1992.
It was Levy who led the four-piece band through the opening notes of “Frontiers,” off the band’s first, self-titled album (1990), with his buoyant harmonica refrains. The song served to introduce the other band members as well, with each musician taking the spotlight as the song moved from a slow, exploratory jam to bouncy jaunt. Fleck, the master banjoist, later took the lead with syncopated solo lines over Victor Wooten’s long bass notes and funky fills. Roy “Future Man” Wooten held down the beat with what seemed like four hands, alternately playing the space-age drumitar (a mashup of guitar and drum machine of his own making) and a standard drum kit with bombast.
The opening song was a prime indication of what was to come with the rest of the career-spanning, 11-song set from these instrumental expeditionaries: exemplary musicianship, a knack for genre-hopping, and a setlist that mixed greatest hits with deep cuts. Whether a casual fan, a Fleck-head, or someone who had never encountered the band, the show offered something for all, such as: deep, dirty bass grooves on “Sex in a Pan”; a bluesy, circus-on-Mars voyage in “Blu-Bop”; and a slow, spacey stomp through “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo.” For this reviewer, the song of the night was “Prickly Pear,” which featured a guest piano spot by Marcus Roberts, of the Marcus Roberts Trio, who played a barrelhouse piano solo over the song’s stomping, mojo-heavy groove.
“Prickly Pear,” like so many of the songs that night, put each musician front and center. (“Belá Fleck and the Flecktones,” it seems, is a misnomer as far as band names go.) While their bandmates watched on, nodding their heads in encouragement, Fleck, Leavy, Wooten, and Futureman each explored the limits of their respective instruments, reaching for the cosmos with feet situated firmly on stage. I couldn’t help but feel I was seeing musical performance idealized: four performers who are among the best—or the best—in the world at the banjo, bass, harmonica, and drums together exploring the possibility of their instruments, their songs, their band, and themselves.
The crowd seemed gleeful to be passengers on this musical voyage. Friends looked wide-eyed at each other upon recognition of a song or especially tasty riff. Girlfriends put their arms around their boyfriends and huddled close in intimacy with each other and the music. Young boys and girls on their father’s shoulders watched the stage from heights above the crowd, cheering, pumping fists. Some people danced, others stood in place, admiring. Everyone this reviewer saw seemed to experience some bond with the music and musicians, some transcendence of varying degrees, traveling somewhere with this band while our feet stayed firmly on the cold ground.
Under what conditions can we connect with such mastery? The question seemed foolish by the end of the show, the answer too obvious: just let the musicians transport you.
Or perhaps Fleck himself said it better during the show: “This is fun, huh? I thought this was supposed to be serious.”