You take a lot of things away from Bela Fleck’s music: awe at the skill on display, a sneaking suspicion that maybe the music world’s much ballyhooed genre lines are even more artificial than you thought, and a warm feeling that there’s nowhere music can’t go in the right hands. The Flecktones supply a lot of things; unfortunately, emotional impact isn’t one of them.
That’s not to say that their music’s cold — lord knows the Flecktones have shown more humor and humanity than a million prog-rock bands on a thousand Roger Dean-designed worlds — but there’s an academic side to their travels that usually keeps the listener’s heart and soul from following the mind down the band’s cosmic paths. Bela Fleck’s travelled down quite a few roads, from his early days in New Grass Revival and through his explorations of bluegrass/jazz/cosmic funk with the Flecktones. On the way, he’s assembled a cast of characters every bit his musical equal. Lately, though, there was the distinct feeling that the band was flirting with a rut, and that their steps on the fringes seemed a touch jaded.
The band’s explorations are still worth charting, though, and Live at the Quick amply demonstrates that there’s vibrant life in the Flecktones yet. The disc documents the Flecktones’ shows as part of what they call the “Big Band,” featuring members of 2000’s Outbound sessions like Congar ol’Ondar, Sandip Burman, Andy Narell, Paul McCandless, and Paul Hanson. The results are suitably eclectic; as an album, Outbound flirted with a variety of luminous world styles (and the Flecktones aren’t a band to stay in one mindset for very long anyway), and that vibe carries over to Live at the Quick.
Things kick off with the woozy, Depression era horns of “That Old Thing” before easing into the funky warm-up, “Earth Jam”. From there, it’s on to the spry banjo and steel pans of “Zona Mona” and the percussion showcase “Ovombo Summit” with its drum-paced chants. The Flecktones’ trademark harmonics-laden rendition of “Amazing Grace” sits alongside the brisk pace of “Big Country”, which sounds for all the world like Mark Knopfler’s score work for Local Hero. Other highlights include the pure dexterity of Fleck’s run through the Prelude of Bach’s “Violin Partitia #3”.
That’s all par for the course, though, and the real pleasures of Live at the Quick derive from the flashes of fresh blood the guests bring in. Andy Narell’s steel pan work provides an indefinable, carefree feel to any song it’s a part of, while Paul Hanson’s and Paul McCandless’ horn work floats elegantly through most of the cuts here. The real surprise, though, is the Tuvan throat singer Congar ol’Ondar. Firstly, he’s amazing — the tones he pulls out of his vocal chords, often simultaneously, still strike this listener as impossible even after hearing it. Secondly, his contribution to a song like “Alash Khem (Alash River Song)” pulls the band as far into left field as you can imagine.
Moments like that are also the disc’s most human, when the Flecktones seem to be tapping into something a little more deep-rooted than jam-band shuffles, golly-gee-wow solos, or improvisational detours. The unexpected moments are generally the simplest, or the most organic — the flashes of cross-pollination from ol’Ondar or any of the other guest musicians act as real gusts of fresh air, and it sets the mind to wondering what the Flecktones would sound like if they let their music follow their world music flirtations to the extreme. The Flecktones showed long ago that there’s no style of music they can’t handle; it would just be really interesting to see them create something brand new, again. Live at the Quick shows flashes of that, even if those moments are a bit brief and subdued.