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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Bela Fleck and The Flecktones perform on Long Island

    Last Sunday the band B’eacute;la Fleck and the Flecktones played at the Tilles Center, a medium-sized venue for the performing arts located on Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus.

    I have known of and liked the Flecktones since a friend in high school introduced me to their music–an eclectic cross between bluegrass, jazz, and progressive rock– but had never seen them live before, so my parents opted to get me tickets as an early birthday gift.

    The Flecktones are unique in several ways. The band is made up of four musicians whose talents are hard to understate. An argument may be plausibly made that multiple members of the Flecktones are the best players in the world at their respective instruments, including band leader B’eacute;la Fleck on the banjo and Victor Wooten on the bass guitar. Wooten’s brother Roy, who goes by the stage name ‘Futureman’ and serves as the band’s percussionist, certainly is– he plays a sui generis instrument of his own invention called the ‘Synthaxe Drumitar,’ which uses MIDI technology to produce drum sound effects from a guitar-shaped keyboard of buttons and wires. Howard Levy, a pianist and harmonica player, has chops at the harmonica which likewise are unparalleled. Levy was an original member of the Flecktones in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and filled out the fourth slot in the lineup last week, subbing in for now-regular member Jeff Coffin. Coffin, a saxophonist, is currently taking time off from the Flecktones to tour with his other group, the Dave Matthews Band.

    The Flecktones’s genre-defying blend of classical and popular musical styles and collective technical prowess has garnered them Grammy awards across many categories and a reputation for dazzling live performances.

    I entered the Tilles Center with high expectations, and the Flecktones did not disappoint. The band took the stage immediately after the house lights dimmed and without saying a word to anyone, launched into the first piece of the evening, even before applause from the audience of approximately 2,000 people had died down.

    As the band progressed from one flawlessly executed composition to the next, Fleck played intricate arpeggios with lightning speed up and down the fretboard of his banjo, to which he added guitar-like synthesizer effects to develop nontraditional sounds from the instrument. Victor Wooten’s fingers moved in counterpoint to the banjo or in crazy flights of fancy that saw him slapping and popping bombs on the bass like a hyperkinetic robot, capable of fitting more notes in less time than a human being possibly could.

    The band also showed its more mellow side on some numbers, with Wooten’s baseline becoming much more melodic and Levy’s harmonica singing a poignant, mournful tone.

    Levy was a surprise element to me, because a fair amount of the concert’s song selection came from the Flecktones’s earliest albums on which he is featured, but with which I was not familiar. His cool, breezy piano lines gave these tunes a jazzy feel, though unfortunately they were hard to hear, since he played an unamplified baby grand piano. The music got lost in the mix at times under Wooten’s booming bass or the hiss of Futureman’s electronic symbols and pounding snare attacks. His harmonica was at the forefront for most of the show, at times replicating complex saxophone parts note-for-note usually played by the absent Coffin, and at one point taking a 10 minute solo that wove through harmonies, tempos, and themes, including a tease of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’

    Indeed, despite the Flecktones’ obvious serious musical devotion, the band often demonstrated its capacity for playfulness. Levy plucked at the strings inside the piano on one song. Wooten pretended during a solo to continue an ascending pattern of notes beyond the realm of playability or human hearing, by forming the pattern with his fingers in the air past the head of his bass after having run out of room on the strings. Futureman’s entire essence is oddly comical, from his moniker and the instrument he plays to the feathered three-cornered pirate’s hat he wears onstage. Lastly, Fleck responded to one fan’s shouted request to play ‘Sinister Minister,’ one of the band’s signature songs, by saying, ‘sorry, I don’t know that one.’

    The band later closed their set with the song, and I for one was glad they did. The song features a, yes, sinister-sounding, infectious bass riff that always eventually leads to an extensive bass solo breakdown, highlighting Wooten’s massive talent. While every Flecktone was left alone on stage by his bandmates at some point to wow the audience with his improvisation skills, Wooten truly brought the roof down, destroying runs of notes that would be ludicrous for any other mere mortal to attempt to play, before segueing back into a reprise of the main groove, thereby causing Fleck, Levy, and Futureman to rejoin the piece for its ending.

    This is not to say that the Flecktones are merely a showcase for the individual abilities of a troupe of four virtuosos. The whole is clearly equal to greater than the sum of its parts: they actually mesh together very well musically, as was evidenced last Sunday by their tight jamming and graceful song structures. Fleck, the band’s main songwriter, is an accomplished composer as well as player, having authored several albums of compelling rock and pop rooted in jazz sensibilities.

    The Flecktones’s disparate influences were reflected in the makeup of the audience at the Tilles Center: there were older couples- likely bluegrass or jazz enthusiasts- who dressed as they would perhaps for a night at Lincoln Center, as well as groups of friends in their 20s wearing tie-dye Grateful Dead t-shirts, who came for the high-energy improvisation, funky grooves, and the possibility of a transcendent jam. There might have been much less of the former and more of the latter present ‘ had the Tilles Center been a standing-room rather than assigned-seating venue. Instead, everyone remained seated (with the exception of two standing ovations), and ushers scurried around the aisles trying to confiscate the digital cameras of anyone who attempted to snap a picture.

    It was too bad, because the Flecktones’s music is highly conducive to interpretive dancing and audience participation, in my opinion, but I guess I have revealed my own inclinations when seeing a concert. But all in all, getting to catch a Flecktones show was a highly enjoyable and eye-opening experience. This is a band everyone should definitely check out.’

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