The scene was set for a perfect night. Crowds soaked up the sun and the fragrant air that comes with a hot summer night in Oregon, while nearby elephants and cheetahs lounged in the shade. Oddly enough, the Oregon Zoo in Portland made an idyllic setting for a bluegrass show. And not just any bluegrass show, but one featuring three bands with some of the best musicians in the world. Yes, few in attendance could have dreamed up a better way to spend a summer Saturday night on July 14 than with the Jerry Douglas Band, David Grisman Trio, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
With the sun still beating down on much of the crowd, Jerry Douglas took the stage with a set that would showcase his dynamic range as a musician. Ever prolific and seemingly always on the road with a different band, this show found Douglas teaming up with a young and talented cast of musicians. Douglas led his band – which included a saxophone, trumpet, electric guitar, fiddle, bass and drums – through songs that drifted into progressive, almost jazzy territory that felt about as far away from bluegrass as you could get despite the presence of his virtuosic Dobro skills. The band kept a fast pace and never broke stride, executing flawless jams that felt simultaneously arranged and improvised. By the end of their set, Jerry Douglas and co. had set a high bar for the entire night.
That bar would only be set higher by legendary mandolin player David Grisman and a lineup that included his son Sam on the standup bass and banjo playing badass Danny Barnes, who alternated between banjo and acoustic guitar. The trio stayed tight while each letting their respective musical personalities shine through. Calling it a “little soft shoe number”, Grisman conjured the musical equivalent of a whimsical day in the park with his mandolin, while Barnes would unleash a delightful old timey romp with “Coal Mine”, and later young Sam would lead the band on the David Grisman/Jerry Garcia classic “Jackaroo”. They even treated the crowd to a new song with the mysterious and intricately picked “Zieda’s Waltz”, ultimately proving that, at the age of 73, David Grisman is still just as sharp on his instrument.
At last it was time for the main attraction, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, who opened with a wonderfully manic mélange of sounds that got downright funky and found Howard Levy jumping in headfirst with a wild harmonica solo. On tour celebrating their thirtieth year, the Flecktones sounded spry as ever, each at the absolute highest level of craftsmanship on his instrument. Victor Wooten would lay down thick and dirty bass grooves throughout the night, while Bela Fleck would create sounds with the banjo that are seemingly impossible. At times he would alternate from gritty blues guitar tone only to drop on a dime into a jazz solo or break off into a full on a banjo bluegrass riff.
Onstage at the zoo, the band led the audience through peaks and valleys with astounding proficiency. There was the progressive scaling of “Nemo’s Dream”, the trippy two-part jazzgrass opus “Mars Needs Women”, and the swinging yet highly technical number “Hurricane Camille” that found drum mastermind Future Man kicking off with a cymbal-heavy, almost tribal solo. The biggest moment of the night would come close to the end as the Flecktones did what many in the audience hoped for and invited first Jerry Douglas to the stage to join them on the reggae groove meets Celtic jam “Lochs of Dread” only to then invite David Grisman out for “Big Country”. Each act of the night undoubtedly delivered an impressive set, but seeing all of the masters onstage together was truly the pinnacle of an already magical night of bluegrass at the zoo.