Béla Fleck and the Flecktones 1999-04-30

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones 1999-04-30
Merle Watson Memorial Bluegrass Festival
North Wilkesboro, NC


Writing about a band like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is hard. Should they be categorized as jazz, bluegrass, instrumental, crossover (?!?!) classical, country, or world. It's difficult to decide, because the band or its members have won Grammy Awards in each of these categories. Once decided, the writer is presented with the additional daunting task of describing the Flecktones music and abilities.

To avoid sounding too gushing, one could take the position of a contrarian. That, however, doesn't seem very easy either. Just google "flecktones suck." Maybe the best advice comes from the editor of the Wilkesboro Journal-Patriot in introducing the Flecktones for this show, "Just shut up and introduce them." Plus, track four includes everything you need to know about the members of the band.

Intro > Throwdown, Imagine This, Band Intros, Big Country, Enter Sam Bush, Spanish Point, Stomping Ground, crowd, Encore: Cheeseballs In Cowtown
I ended up choosing this show by accident. I was searching archive.org for a Sam Bush show when I ran across it. If the Flecktones are normally missing something, Sam's presence fills the gap. He comes in halfway through the set, right after an excellent performance of "Big Country." He jumps right into "Spanish Point," off volume two of the Bluegrass Sessions album. While Sam and Béla have a long history playing together, it is such a treat to hear him with the Flecktones. It's sets like these that make going to a music festival worth it.
"They think the banjo can only be happy, but that's not true." -Bela Fleck
One complaint often aired from people that do not like the Flecktones, is that their music is too busy. While I'm often quick to dismiss this, the complaint does have some merit. Combining different styles of music like the Flecktones do creates compositions that are challenging and complex. For most people, they've never heard anything like it. In an effort to impose order on music, our brains tend flatten it out and listen superficially. The result is a cluttered wall of sound. I'm not trying to sound like an elitist, but to recognize that most people no longer listen to complicated music. Music that requires your full attention. There are just too many things competing for it. Active listening is a tricky skill to master, one that needs to be started at a young age (link).

For a quick exercise, let's listen to what is going on beginning at 2:24 on "Stomping Ground." The band launches into a call and response. It opens with Victor Wooten on bass laying down a groove, the rest of the band supporting. Jeff responds with his sax, then it repeats with Béla, and then Sam. Futureman stays in support, but he responds to what is being played. After listening closely to each individual instrument, you should be able to pick them up when they are playing together. At 3:03 the band comes back together into a unison. Can you still hear each individual voice? Now listen to another track. The things discovered make getting into music like this worth it.

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