Live Review: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at Anthology, March 13, 2012

Photo credit: Paul Parks

The audience that filled every seat, corner, and aisle at Anthology to see the first of four Bela Fleck and the Flecktones shows knew exactly what they were in for: an hour and a half of non-stop, jaw-dropping musicianship. And from the onset, they were not disappointed. The band arrived on stage together, launching into the harmonica-drenched “Bottle Rocket” from the recently released album Rocket Science.

For over 20 years, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have been breaking the musical mold, refusing to be pigeonholed into any one genre. Certainly the dominance of Fleck’s physics-defying banjo work lends itself to a sound reminiscent of old-time Americana. Or you might come close with descriptors like “funk, progressive, bluegrass fusion,” but even that would miss the mark. The best thing about this group is that you never really know what’s going to happen when they take the stage. And with piano/harmonica player Howard Levy back in the fold to complete the original lineup, The Flecktones were in fine form, bouncing effortlessly from song to song.

“It seems like all the old bands have gotten back together to bring out all their greatest hits,” bass player Victor Wooten announced shortly after the opening number. “But since we didn’t have any hits, we decided to write a new record instead.”

Never ones to rest on their laurels, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have with Rocket Science bettered themselves and defied expectations yet again; but after all, that’s what they do best. The band is made up of some of the world’s greatest musicians in Bela Fleck (banjo), Victor Wooten (bass), Roy “Futureman” Wooten (drumitar) and Howard Levy (piano/diatonic harmonica), all of whom are masters of their instruments.

It was only natural then that, over the course of the show, each band member got to show off his respective chops on an already hedonistic audience. There is no denying the raw talent of Wooten, whose “double thumb” bass technique never fails to amaze. Levy put on a harmonica master class, creating a (literally) breathtaking flurry of recognizable melodies including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” much to the amusement of the crowd. And while we would never expect anything less than incredible from Mr. Fleck himself, who performed a humble and almost classical piece on the banjo, it was percussionist Futureman that proved the source of the most curiosity.

If you are watching The Flecktones for the first time, it might take you a few minutes to work out where the percussion sounds are coming from. Sure, there’s a drum kit on stage, but who is playing? Enter Futureman and his self-designed Drumitar – 25 MIDI pads sunk into a triangular-shaped hardwood body which, when pressed or slapped by the player, triggers a drum sound. Futureman’s seemingly superhuman ability to create drums without physically sitting behind a kit is a spectacle in itself, his triggered sounds fusing with real-live percussion techniques to create an uncompromising rhythm section.

Modern fiddle player and long-time Flecktone collaborator Casey Driessen joined the band for two songs, including the highlight of the evening: an audible duel with Howard Levy. With his mad professor look and trademark red shoes, Driessen matched Levy blow for blow, the interplay between the fiddle and harmonica taking the show to unexplored heights as the rest of the band pushed the freight train of a crescendo to its limits.

The Flecktones would blow the minds of three more crowds before leaving San Diego, but the show never felt like a mere warmup. As the instruments were being retired to their cases, you could see the musicians in the crowd trying to come to terms with what they had just witnessed.

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