Jon Patrizio, Contributing Writer
On this past Wednesday, November 2, a night of experimental bluegrass and jazz was provided by Béla Fleck and The Flecktones at the Foothills Performing Arts Center here in Oneonta. Béla Fleck, an innovator of the banjo, has performed with such musicians as Chick Corea (piano), Zakir Hussain (tablas), Stanley Clarke (double-bass/bass guitar), John Luc-Ponty (violin) and Edgar Meyer (double-bass and piano), who all have made a name for themselves in the music world. He has also written a concerto for the banjo, which he performed with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra back on September 22, 2011 at the Laura Turner Concert Hall. A 14-time Grammy winner, having been nominated 30 times, Fleck has also been nominated in more categories than anyone in Grammy history. This show was with his most famed project, The Flecktones.
The line-up featured all original members, who are all innovators in their own right: Victor Wooten (bass guitar), Howard Levy (piano and harmonica) and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (percussion and the “Drumitar,” an instrument he invented). For those wondering what a “Drumitar” is, it’s a keytar synthesizer, shaped like a guitar with drum sounds programmed to sound when the “keys” are pressed.
This line-up was a return to the original, now that Jeff Coffin (saxophone) plays with the Dave Matthews Band full time. The music was out of this world, quite literally. At times it was jazz, at other times it was bluegrass, and then at other times, as Béla Fleck described a few times to the audience, it was just “peculiar.” As I sat in my seat, watching the band, I couldn’t help but to be overwhelmed by the musicianship on stage. Every transition was smooth, the band was tight, and I can honestly say there weren’t any mistakes made—any that I noticed anyway. I was blown away by the fact that musicians of their stature were here. Then Victor Wooten changed basses and announced that the five-string fretless he was about to use was built by his good friend, an Oneonta native Joe Compito, who now resides in Nashville, where Wooten and Béla Fleck also reside.
Throughout the show, there was a time for each member to take the spotlight and show off their talent. First was Victor Wooten, who had a loop pedal, where he’d have a line play and would solo over it, then would change the line he had looping and would go through that cycle for a little bit, tricking the audience by making it appear he was playing without playing the strings as fast the they were sounding. It was a great moment of crowd interaction.
Then Howard Levy had his chance to show off on the harmonica. He was a phenomenal harp player, playing these lines that sounded like there were two harmonicas sounding at once. Next was “Futureman,” whose solo mixed his “Drumitar” with conventional drums and percussion—a very cool and interesting mix of convention and innovation. The final solo spot belonged to Béla Fleck and his five-string banjo. Starting with teases of “Oh Susanna,” he went into some rapid bluegrass style picking, and then moved into some classical style picking, something I’ve never heard before. He then started incorporating jazz, comping chords and playing chordal melodies, playing teases of “Oh Susanna” here and there—as he literally had a banjo on his knee.
The rest of the band then came out and together they played one last song, receiving a standing ovation and a thunderous applause for an encore, which they delivered and got another standing ovation. Soon after, they came out for a meet and greet with audience members. The show itself lasted for a little longer than two hours, including the brief set break and the encore, and the meet and greet lasted around 20 minutes. There weren’t any highlights of the show, only because the show itself was a highlight. It was a flawless performance, with no letting up in the excitement or musicianship. After the meet and greet was over, I had a chance to ask Béla Fleck some questions with the arts editor and photographer for the show, Kate Koenig (read here!).