For a musician of his talent and stature, it’s hard to believe that Bela Fleck had not played with his band the Flecktones at Carnegie Hall before their show on June 30th, a part of the New York City version of the JVC Jazz Festival. Long overdue, this performance delivered all the genre-bending mastery for which the Flecktones are known.
As an extra treat, we watched Del McCoury and his quasi-family band (son Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo) kick the show off with a tight set of traditional bluegrass, accented as always by the elder McCoury’s distinctive, high-pitched delivery—an instantly recognizable voice seemingly plucked straight from the times of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs (whose performance at the Grand Ole Opry introduced the young Del to the banjo and bluegrass).
After a short break to reconfigure the spare stage setup—which remained spare for the Flecktones, save for the obligatory plush hippos adorning each member’s amplifier—Fleck and crew eased into the set with the ethereal “Earth Jam,” patiently gauging the dynamic acoustics of the room. As if in recognition of the pristine sound, Bela gazed searchingly around the room as he ran up and down the neck of his custom electric banjo. Bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten remained uncharacteristically restrained, as if in awe of the hallowed hall, but came alive on “True North,” a tune that also featured the ordered caterwauling of one-man horn section Jeff Coffin. The sax/flute/etc. player displayed his prodigious chops all night, ranging across jazz scales and Eastern melodies with equal skill and control.
Even during his always well-received rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Wooten only briefly abandoned his feather-light delivery, filled with well-placed harmonics, for his more energetic, hammer-and-pop–heavy playing. Later in the set, the band offered an interesting take on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” as well as a welcome collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Polka on the Banjo,” during which Wooten and McCoury bassist Alan Bartram traded verse/chorus licks on Wooten’s bass, appropriately turned upright.
Ultimately though, the night was about Bela Fleck, and the show ended fittingly with the banjo virtuoso on stage alone, running through his typically jaunty combination of jazz, bluegrass, rock and classical riffs—a solid end to a solid performance that, while not their best, was perfectly suited to a venue seemingly made for the Flecktones brand of fusion