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Tuesday, January 19

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Concert Wed Jul 20 2011

Béla Fleck Surrounds Himself With The Original Flecktones @ The Vic, 7/21/11

flecktones_img03_Jeremy-Cowart.jpg
Béla Fleck (second from left) and the Flecktones (L to R) Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, and Roy "Future Man" Wooten (photo credit: Jeremy Cowart)

While rock music and the electric guitar certainly steal the limelight when it comes to discussions of American contributions to global culture, it pays to take a moment to consider the humble banjo. The banjo has a quintessentially American origin story, having been derived from an amalgam of several different African instruments, primarily with gourd or shell bodies, hide coverings and stick necks. These primitive stringed instruments gained western-style fret boards and increasingly sophisticated construction as they gained popularity, initially as a part of black minstrel shows of the 19th century. Gradually, the banjo found a home in white Southern traditional music and bluegrass, which formed the basis of what we now know as country music.

After seeing a long period where the banjo was somewhat relegated to the niche genres of bluegrass and country, which of course had its adherents but lacked significant mainstream exposure, the banjo as of late has seen something of a comeback. Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, acts such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band used bluegrass, employing banjo as an integral instrument, as a launching point for projects that integrated elements of rock and improvisational music to appeal to a much wider fan base and steer many back towards the traditional music source material. In this day and age, it has become almost de rigueur for twee indy rock bands to trot out the banjo, and the humble instrument seems to have made something of a comeback.

While finding a banjo player these days doesn't seem too terribly difficult these days, when New Yorker Béla Fleck first expressed an interest in the instrument in the early 1970's, his choice was not the most obvious. Since that time, Fleck has played with some of the most gifted bluegrass musicians of our time, having played on occasion with Doc Watson and with mandolin great Sam Bush in the influential band Newgrass Revival. To this day, Fleck, along with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and others, is part of the "house band" at the annual Telluride Bluegrass festival. Along the way, Fleck has won a trophy cabinet full of Grammys and has, in testimony to the diversity of his work, the distinction of having been nominated in more categories than any other musician.

While Fleck clearly has his more traditional bases covered, it is his work with his band, The Flecktones that has truly been his public face for the last two decades. Fleck formed the band in 1988 with bassist Victor Wooten, keyboardist and harmonica player Howard Levy and Wooten's brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten who plays a synthesized percussion device of his own design called the "Drumitar". Levy left the band in 1992, leaving it a trio until saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined the band in the late 1990s. Recently, Levy has rejoined the band, and the group has released Rocket Science, their fourteenth release, and the first by the original lineup in 20 years. Live, Flecktones shows jump around from genre to genre, drawing some from the anticipated sources, but usually incorporating as much free jazz and improvisation as anything else. Onstage, Fleck himself is a force of nature. Rarely has one person so thoroughly and convincingly occupied the position of virtuoso. If there is a better banjo player, living or dead, I have yet to see or hear them. Fleck picks with precision and grace, proving his technical skill, and takes the instrument to new places with tricks such as playing the tuning pegs to achieve a sitar-like sound. The Flecktones have always been equal to supporting Fleck's virtuosity, and the reincorporation of Levy should prove only to improve the group's overall impact. Fleck's Thursday night appearance at the Vic is one of the final shows of his tour supporting this album.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones play at 8pm, Thursday, July 21 at the The Vic Theater, located at 3145 N. Sheffield Ave. Tickets are available online through the Vic Theater site, or at the box office, cash only day of show.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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