Béla Fleck stopped by the Strathmore Music Center, a stunning architectural marvel of a venue with superb acoustics located in Bethesda, MD, on Wednesday, September 22nd with his latest project, My Bluegrass Heart, for a much-anticipated evening of world-class musicianship and some good old-fashioned bluegrass, with a unique progressive spin that only Mr. Fleck himself can provide.
This performance, which was postponed from its originally scheduled October 2020 date due to COVID, found Béla surrounding himself with an all-star cast of musicians featuring veteran acoustic stalwarts such as Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Mark Schatz (bass) along with some of the current generation’s brightest phenoms Michael Cleveland (fiddle) and the husband & wife duo of Justin Moses (dobro, fiddle, banjo) & Sierra Hull (mandolin). The group primarily stuck to the tracklist from Béla’s recent studio effort, also entitled My Bluegrass Heart, while also throwing in a few welcome surprise covers such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder”, which was recorded by legendary guitarist Tony Rice for his 1984 album by the same name and featured a young Béla Fleck on banjo, as well as a rousing version of New Grass Revival’s “When the Storm is Over”, a song with which the storied progressive act often used to open their infamously high-energy live performances.
Taking to the stage shortly after 8pm, the five musicians (multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses would come & go throughout the evening) lined up in a row, with Mrs. Hull & Mr. Cleveland bookending the ensemble, and launched into a fiery rendition of the album’s opening track, “Vertigo”. This rousing instrumental set the tone for the evening as the group expertly traded leads with each other, gracefully passing around the musical baton with machine-like precision, particularly Messrs. Sutton & Cleveland, who spent much of the evening chasing one another throughout with an ouroboros-like quality that often propelled the music to new heights.
The band continued on like this for over two hours without stopping – the typical two-set format was eschewed due to the venue’s strict curfew – delivering an onslaught of musical highlights, often peppered with lightning-fast instrumental runs by everyone involved that elicited numerous & genuinely avid ovations from the sold-out audience.
While remaining relatively faithful to the album versions, several of the songs performed this evening featured some particularly inspired playing, especially “Charm School”, Béla’s instrumental ode to dog training, as well as the tender “Psalm 136” which saw Béla & Sierra collaborating for a breathtaking duet on a song Fleck wrote after spending time with a Jewish Ugandan tribe in Africa.
The aforementioned covers were also well received, particularly Hull’s timeless vocals on Bill Monroe’s old-timey “Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day”, which evoked memories of forgotten jukeboxes in some whiskey-soaked roadside bar, as well as the touching acapella number “Another Day”, a moving piece written by Schatz in response to the COVID-related losses we all have suffered in the past year and used to end the evening on an emotional note.
You nailed this review. Thank you for providing this. I didn’t know any of the names of the tunes and so your thoroughness is much appreciated.
I could not believe how fast, intricate, complex and virtuosic the first tune they played was. I thought how could they possibly repeat that and yet they did one after another. Every musician was fantastic.
The encore was so emotional, it took the crowd many verses before they could get the lumps out of their throats to join in. I never could. I am going to have to get the album now.