Reviews

Bela Fleck & The Original Flecktones: 16 November 2011 – New York

Clearly, even after twenty plus years, the Flecktones are wallowing in the ecstasy of the magic they continue to create and recreate.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

City: New York
Venue: Town Hall
Date: 2011-11-16

The Flecktones have quite a history together. The band, comprised of Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Howard Levy and Roy "Future Man" Wooten, originally got together in 1988 and put out three albums before the end of 1992. At that point, Levy left the band, but the remaining three kept at it for a while longer before eventually moving into different endeavors. It was not until the past year that the four "Original Flecktones" reunited for a tour, which continued through 2011 in support of their new album Rocket Science.

The audience cheered as the Flecktones took the stage to perform "Bottle Rocket", off this new album, which then continued into "Nemo's Dream". In between "Nemo" and "Prickly Pear", Wooten had the opportunity to solo. As he plucked on a single string, stomping on the pedal in front of him, it dawned on the audience that he was building a scale progression and adding upon it note by note. With each repetition of the cascading sequence the audience began to laugh as Wooten grinned ear to ear. This would be the first in a number of solos each musician, and the audience, would get a chance to enjoy.

Soon after the rest of the band returned to join in the fun and entered into "Prickly" without any hesitation or fanfare. Unlike the first couple of songs, where it seemed the Flecktones needed a bit of time to get their groove back, this third number was more exciting. It should go without saying, but during instrumental numbers over five minutes long, each musician regularly added their own bits of flair. The vaudeville number Levy segued into towards the end put a smile on people’s faces. It was just a glimpse of the genre hopping versatility the band possesses.

Following the fourth song "Live in Eleven", Fleck took time to acknowledge the audience and introduce the members of the band. In a daisy-chain, Fleck introduced the man with "two instruments" Levy; Levy spoke highly of the talents of Futureman; Futureman praised New York and told a story about Frank Gehry before expressing the bass-prowess of his little brother; then Wooten humbly accepted the praise and presented "the big Fleck", on the five string banjo, Bela Fleck himself. Fleck allowed the five-string its chance to speak and introduce "Sunset Road". This instrumental got a few people in the audience clapping along with enthusiasm before swerving away to allow Futureman to sing along.

Glistening mouth harp swishes echoed in Town Hall during Levy’s solo, which contained its own echoes of Flecktones’ songs and some reworked classical music. Again the full band returned but this time with Casey Driessen, a violinist who shared the stage with Fleck in the Sparrow Quartet, in tow. His instrument added extraterrestrial twangs to "Flying Saucer Dudes" as the rest of the band got caught up in furious throes and produced some chaotic effects. The number ended appropriately with great applause before the band took a short break.

Just like the first set, the second one took a bit before it revved up too. The Flecktones opened the second set with "Blu-bop" from their second album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. Fleck asked the audience for the album info saying "I think that’s correct," before introducing "Seresta". Later, Fleck started off his solo a bit uncertain as to the direction he would take it. But as he teased out some melodies, he must have decided why not have a little fun and threw a bit of "Pop Goes the Weasel" into the mix. When the full band returned, with Driessen in tow, they went into the barnyard hootenanny, "The Yee-Haw Factor". The band members alternated "call and response" moments with each other and generally worked themselves into a full on hay fever over the course of the nearly thirteen minute instrumental.

Finally, after a short break, the group revisited "Sinister Minister" from their eponymous 1990 album for their final song. During a solo, when Wooten reprised some lines from "Weasel", the enjoyment of the band was visible to all in the audience. Clearly, even after twenty plus years, the Flecktones are wallowing in the ecstasy of the magic they continue to create and recreate.

Setlist:

Bottle Rocket > Nemo's Dream

Victor Wooten [Solo] > Prickly Pear

Life in Eleven

Sunset Road

Howard Levy [Solo] > Flying Saucer Dudes

[Break]

Blu-bop

Seresta

Storm Warning

Futureman [Solo] > Sweet Pomegranates

Bela Fleck [Solo] > The Yee-haw Factor

[Break]

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Music

Mike Stern: Trip

Photo: Sandrine Lee (Concord Music Group)

Mike Stern has fallen. Trip shows that he can get back up just fine.


Mike Stern

Trip

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that "I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick." While you're busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one's career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip. Apart from the title,

Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven't hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I'm aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern's 2012 All Over the Place, but there's no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it's all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn't just replaced with Steve Austin?

Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named "Watchacallit". This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it's all put together, it's truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say "stereo" right about here). But that's just two songs. There's a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn't use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop ("Emelia"), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic ("Screws"), and the soothing ballad ("I Believe in You" and "Gone").

No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern's friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist. Normally, I'd wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to

Trip over and over again, I'm convinced that he's beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He's back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.

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