Shows I'll Never Forget: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Nov. 18, 2003

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At the Marquee Theater in Tempe, Arizona: We finished dinner a little before six and headed over to the Marquee theater, which was really only a few minutes away. Since Bela Fleck & the Flecktones came on at 7 p.m. — a very early start time — we figured we’d just wait at the venue. Might as well sit and be comfortable for a while, right? We ended up having to stand in line, however, and as more and more people gathered behind us, and the clock ticked closer and closer to 7 p.m., it started to dawn on us that this show was probably not going to start on time. As if a wave of revelation swept over a small group of us, we all pulled out our tickets — clearly with the same thought in mind. Re-reading the ticket a little more closely, I found that instead of starting at 7 p.m., it simply said “doors open at 7 p.m.” So what time did the band take the stage then? I figured 8 p.m.

Eight o’clock rolled around and still no Flecktones. All the equipment was laid out and set up on stage. Two of Victor Wooten’s basses sat idly by his amps, a four-string fretted and a five-string frettless, Bela’s electric and acoustic banjos loitered near his rack, and next door Jeff Coffin’s two saxes, two flutes, and clarinet stood at attention. Off to the far right rested Futureman’s growing percussion set, having added an odd box-shaped kick drum triggered by a remote pedal, along with his usual assortment of electric and acoustic percussion items.

Twenty minutes later a lone figure crossed the stage to check that all the equipment was on and warmed up, leaving a setlist at each musician’s station. He stopped at Vic’s basses and began tuning, pulling another one out from behind Wooten’s equipment, then did the same to Bela’s instruments (momentarily revealing the odd “Swiss Army Guitar” Bela plays on some songs.) Instruments tuned, he grabbed Bela’s electric banjo and Vic’s four-string bass and headed backstage again. The must be ready to go on, right?

Wrong. Another 10 minutes went by and another figure emerged on the other side of the stage from behind a ruffle of curtains, swiping a blanket off an odd shape there. Within seconds hoots and hollers began — the man quickly picked up Futureman’s Synthaxe Drumitar and swept it off stage. Occasionally, from my perspective, a Flecktone or two could be glimpsed slipping between the backstage area and a door in the back, but none ventured forth to the stage. Within moments, the crowd grew more restless and began a demanding, rhythmic clap, and many comments could be heard wondering why the band was so late.

Finally, at about 8:40, the lights dimmed and the crowd roared to life as Bela and Vic gradually brought a song to life. Bela strolled out first, emerging from the darkness in a slow stroll, followed by Victor, while Jeff and Futureman took their places at the other side of the stage. From there it was a blur – the Flecktones leapt into their first set, playing several cuts from their newest album, Little Worlds. The band seemed to be struggling a little bit, however – the newer tracks, being a little more atmospheric than usual, seemed to present a bit of a stumbling block as the band attempted to gel. It was clear that their hearts were in it, but they weren’t quite connecting as I know they can. Futureman took an early solo that found him shifting from his drums to an odd, percussive piano-type “keyboard,” for lack of a better term, the likes of which I’ve never seen. A couple songs later the first set was finished – not even an hour later.

Victor emerged after the intermission, donned his bass, and proceeded to blow away my expectations. Being one of the world’s very best bassists, I expected to be impressed, but somehow Wooten exceeded my already high expectations. Setting up loops with only his bass, Victor would build piece upon piece until he had what sounded like a band backing him. He would frequently break these down to a single element again and rebuild another song on top of new elements, climaxing in a stunning take on Weather Report’s “Birdland” — Wooten snuck bits and pieces, cunningly weaving together the horn and keyboard motif until he suddenly burst out with bassist Jaco Pastorius’ memorable lead line, resulting in a huge roar of support from the energetic crowd. After a few moments, Wooten broke it down and looped a heavy groove, thanked the crowd with a wave, and strolled off stage.

Jeff Coffin emerged from the darkness in the center of the stage while the loop repeated, honking his sax in a tasteful, song-like solo. I don’t know what Jeff’s standing is among jazz elite, but he proves to be one of the most versatile horn players I’ve seen. He can shred and wail with ease, yet can also lay back and play nearly light-jazz runs. Never once are his technical abilities or credibility in question – like the rest of the Flecktones, Coffin clearly loves playing above all, and his energetic stage presence and sense of humor is evident in everything he plays. He’s serious, but he’s also seriously fun, often grabbing both of his saxes to play simultaneous, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk was known to do.

Re-energized, the full band emerged again and ripped through several more new tracks and old favorites. Smiles and laughs were traded between the band members as often as riffs, Bela and Vic trading licks of many memorable TV theme songs, culminating in a stand-off between the two where each egged the other on, then began slapping the strings of the others’ instrument. While it was clearly a planned humorous bit, they played so off-the-cuff that they themselves seemed entertained by it (and why not?)

Bela took his solo as the last song of the second set, running the gamut from classical pieces to bluegrass weaved together with showy, jaw-dropping runs of incredible speed and dexterity. Not one to be left looking serious, Bela threw in humorous stunts here and there, such as when he paused mid-solo to hold a note on his 5-string acoustic banjo with his chin. Greeted by chuckles as he played a short run, Bela halted again, held up a finger to pause the applause, then proceeded to fret multiple notes with the aid of his chin. Cheers and hoots of laughter flooded the Marquee. Fleck then returned to soloing, slowly forming his solo into a reading of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” all the while beckoning the audience to fill in the chorus and receiving an impressive response in return.

The rest of the ‘tones returned to the stage, Bela strapping on his oddly beautiful “Swiss Army Guitar” for the two signature vocal Flecktones songs, “Communication” and “A Moment So Close,” and closed the show to thunderous applause. While the first set may have gotten off to a rocky start, the band more than made up for the slight lack of enthusiasm with a significantly sharpened second set, leaving the crowd hoping for more — and Bela himself surprised at not only the turnout (the biggest he said they’d ever had in Phoenix) but the enthusiasm of the audience.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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