The house lights dimmed and the Hart Theater at The Egg Performing Arts Center in Albany grew dark. The house was packed; every seat was filled with a body consumed with anticipation. Four years had passed since most of these fans had seen the act that was about to take the stage, and for anyone else it had either been longer or not at all. Slowly, music started to escape from the speakers. The first sounds heard were from a jaw harp played by the instrumentally diverse Howard Levy as he walked out on stage. Next, Futureman came out with his Synthaxe Drumitar, laying down percussion in the most unique way with an instrument of his own design. Then came Victor Wooten and Béla Fleck, at the same time, filling the sound out with their respective bass and banjo. The June 8 reunion tour show of Béla Fleck and the Original Flecktones was underway.
The Nashville-based progressive bluegrass, jazz fusion quartet started their unsupported two-set show off with one of their oldest tunes, “Frontiers.” There was a thorough introduction to everyone’s capabilities right off the bat. Howard demonstrating his note-bending harmonica technique, Victor proving to be as solid as ever, helping to keep the rhythm in fine form, Béla plucking away at his banjo in the most expert of ways, and Futureman’s fluent ability to fill the rest of the sound with the perfect percussion.
The band played a few more songs before the crowd was addressed. Béla spoke first, talking about how long it had been since they’ve toured and how they are on a two-week run, slowly moving their way west to Colorado to play the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He talked about being back in Albany for the first time in four years and how he’s “always thrilled to be back at The Egg.” He then turned the crowd’s attention to his right and introduced Howard, who made mention of being a New York native, specifically from Brooklyn. Howard then introduced Victor who then introduced his older brother, Futureman.
The drummer extraordinaire gave some insight into the formation of The Flecktones. He mentioned that Béla called him one day and started talking to him about a project. Futureman urged Béla not to pigeonhole himself in bluegrass and told him how playing jazz on a banjo isn’t just a possibility—it’s already been done, but had fallen out of style. He talked about how back in the 1920s Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, a New Orleans jazz band, had a banjo as a main instrument. Futureman elaborated further after the show saying that Béla playing banjo in a jazz band would be like bringing that instrument full circle in a genre from which it had escaped years ago, likely due to the instillation of the guitar.
The show was not only loaded with truly fulfilling music, but it was clear that these four longtime bandmates were having some fun performing on the road again. Howard was using every bit of every instrument to make the sound he wanted the audience to hear, like reaching into the open top of the grand piano and strumming on the high octave strings. Victor played his nearly patented slap-and-tap, which always gets the crowd cheering. Béla continued to tear up the banjo with precision and Futureman was taking drum solos while not even sitting at a drum set. They finished up the first set with “Kayto,” during which they crowded together so all four could help play the bass and banjo slung over Victor and Béla’s shoulders.
The Flecktones came back from set break and ignited the second set with “Zenergy,” in which Victor played a monster bass solo. He told a fan after the show that a vast majority of any show he plays is him playing bass lines and not playing with more complicated technique; the band benefits much more from a solid bass line than constant soloing. (Either way, when people think of Victor Wooten, they think of one of the best bassists in the history of music and hearing him perform one of his solos is almost worth the price of admission by itself.)
The second set was going as could be expected—everyone dancing in their seat and giving little shout outs, cheering on these four gentlemen. One fan pointed it out the best, noting that it was simply amazing that what everyone was watching is a group of four guys who are all very talented musicians, quite unique in their own fashion, yet still manage to play symbiotically, as though they were one musical organism.
Toward the end of the second set, Béla gave the crowd some instructions, which included some “ooos” and “aaahs.” What came next was the crowd favorite, “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo.” The set was capped off with another hit, “Stomping Grounds,” and then this incredibly unique band exited the stage, only to return moments later for their encore. Béla and his fellow minstrels finished the show with sincere thanks for everyone attending and then they broke into an electrifying “Sinister Minister.”
As the house lights came on, the audience started to file out toward the venue’s exit. However, some fans remained and started to congregate near the stage. These people knew something those who were already departing didn’t know; Béla, Victor, Howard and Futureman would be back out to do an unannounced meet-and-greet. They proved to be incredibly gracious and humble people who were more than happy to take pictures with fans and sign autographs, even for one gentleman who had the better part of a dozen CDs to sign. The evening left Flecktones’ fans fully satisfied, knowing that it was worth the four-year wait. The only hope was that the amount of time between this show and the next will be much shorter.
Check out the photo gallery below taken by NYS Music photographer, Frankie Cavone.