Don’t change those clothes

Four amazing musicians, two sold-out nights, one hot show

FLECK-TACULAR <br>Béla Fleck leads his Flecktones through a serious instrumental workout at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room. The group’s two sold-out performances were filmed for PBS’ <i>Sierra Center Stage</i> series.

Béla Fleck leads his Flecktones through a serious instrumental workout at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room. The group’s two sold-out performances were filmed for PBS’ Sierra Center Stage series.

Photo By C. Moore

Béla Fleck—arguably the best banjo player in the world—and his mega- talented, genre-bending Flecktones were in fine form during their sold-out two-night stand being filmed for an upcoming program in PBS’ Sierra Center Stage series.

Local videographer vivant Peter Berkow took a break from his pre-show camera-to-camera bopping to check with his crew and make sure things were ready to roll, mounting the stage to incite a test round of audience applause.

That done, Big Room emcee/ promoter Bob Littell came on stage to introduce the band, whose members, as he put it, “define the instruments they play.”

“One even had to create one,” Littell added humorously, motioning to Victor’s brother, Roy “Future Man” Wooten, the inventor of the Synthaxe Drumitar, an unusual (his is the only one in existence), guitar-shaped, MIDI-controlled drum machine capable of a huge variety of sampled sounds.

The Flecktones—Fleck, Victor Wooten, Future Man and multi-reed man Jeff Coffin—launched into their opening song, a fast, fusion-y piece that prompted me to write in my notebook: “'Indian Okie’ style. Do they have ‘Okies’ in India?'”

The audience ate up the repeated rounds of solos from all four musicians, which included crazy-good Coffin on decidedly un-Kenny G. soprano sax. Coffin could also be seen playing his water bottle at one point during this first song, before it segued into song two, a “Shenandoah"-like Western-sounding song on which Coffin played a beautiful pennywhistle.

For the third song Fleck pulled out a purple banjo that looked (and sounded) quite a bit like a guitar. Coffin played tenor sax on this one. Wooten played another wild-yet-grooving solo, which I watched on the “Wooten Cam,” after Berkow came over to me and insisted that I needed to see Wooten’s hands up close doing their thing way up the bass neck.

Before “Rococo,” from the brand-new Flecktones CD, The Hidden Land, there were some clever introductions. Future Man introduced the bald, four-dreadlock-goateed Coffin as the man who “likes to wear his hair upside down.” Coffin, in turn, described Fleck as one who “plays the banjo in more than a dozen languages.” Coffin’s flute playing on “Rococo” was powerful and beautiful. Future Man amazingly played his Drumitar with his left hand while playing a drum set with his right.

The entire evening’s performance was thoroughly entertaining and truly amazing (Coffin’s playing both alto and tenor sax at the same time was only one of many impressive musical moments). These musicians can achieve basically any effect they want from their instruments (and very occasional voices), from subtle to ass-kicking, from bluegrass to edgy jazz to any number of ethnic styles of music. How much tighter could they be?

Well, I was on my way to talk to the Flecktones just after they had finished playing their second sold-out show and Littell passed me and said, “Hard to believe, I know, but they were even better tonight!”

Talking to bassist Victor Wooten, he attributed it to being “warmed up,” explaining: “We were happy that we got to do it two nights, and we can pick the best [of each performance] … This is an amazing room. A lot of places where we film are bigger. The good thing about this place is that it’s small and it sounds good. We can hear each other very well.”

Wooten also added, with a twinkle in his eyes: “We even wore the same clothes both nights.”