Just outside the city of Denver, in Littleton, CO, is a concert field surrounded by trees and shrubbery. The grass is fertile and green, the view of the mountains is extraordinary, the sun is hotter than you can ever believe, and the BBQ grill is fired up on high. An early Sunday evening is quite an underrated time for an outdoor concert, especially in a place as secluded and pristine as the Denver Botanical Gardens. But, with all these factors in effect, this regular summer concert series is not something to miss.
It’s been nearly twenty years since the last time the original lineup of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones stood on a stage together, so for these are welcome tours for the quartet. Although Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, and multi-instrumentalist and percussion extraordinaire Roy “Futureman” Wooten have been Flecktones for that entire time, it’s original member Howard Levy who returned to the lineup in 2010 after an extended absence. In that time, the quartet has toured extensively and released an acclaimed album, Rocket Science.
But before the Flecktones took the stage, we were afforded another treat, as Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers played a nearly 90-minute set full of their classic rock. Hornsby’s voice sounds just as good as ever, and his energy is off the charts. If anything, he seemed more excited to be on stage that night than anyone else. He reminisced with no end about his early days – writing with Don Henley, winning Grammy Awards to the chagrin of the “bluegrass purists”, and about his first time playing with Fleck more than 20 years ago at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. By far, the highlight of the set was when Fleck joined Hornsby on stage for a couple of acoustic tunes – Fleck picking his banjo and Hornsby tickling his ivory and singing with no abandon.
Just as the sun was setting over the mountains, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones took the stage. The quartet in its original form had obviously been looking forward to the tour, as they were clearly hooked up from the start. From stage right, they set up in line – Wooten and Fleck stood center stage, and were flanked by Levy and Futureman on either side. Their set ranged from free form jazz to all out bluegrass hoedown. At times they were joined by fiddler Casey Driessen, and at others by Hornsby on piano or accordion. It was not about what songs they were playing, though – the unity they showed from the stage was palpable to the audience. Though we mostly started the evening sitting, it wasn’t long before a healthy crowd had shuffled towards the front and bunched up as close to the stage as possible. With every change in time signature came a new opportunity to revel at the talent on stage. If the hammering solos of Wooten’s bass as it kept pace with Fleck’s banjo weren’t enough, then surely watching Futureman on his self-invented half-guitar-half-percussion instrument known as the “drumitar” was.
What was actually the best part of the night, though, was the overall feeling of excitement emanating through from the stage to the crowd. For a band that could have come on stage and been rusty, having not played all together in so many years, they have hardly a scratch on them. Of course, at this point, they have had some time to practice, but that should not discount the energy they still possess. And as the entire crew from both bands – Noisemakers and Flecktones – joined each other on stage for an encore jam session, that energy was, again, full.