Béla Fleck Brings All-star Lineup to Portland, OR For World Class Bluegrass Performance (SHOW REVIEW/PHOTOS)

With the release of his Grammy-nominated album My Bluegrass Heart earlier this year, Béla Fleck returned to his roots with a cast of the talented musicians who have collaborated with him along the way. Bringing together the renowned banjo player’s love of traditional and progress bluegrass as well as other styles of music, the album encapsulates what has made Fleck one of the most unique banjo players on the planet for the last three decades. Now, Fleck is on tour in support of the album along with five of his all-star friends who also happen to be among the best players in bluegrass. On Tuesday, December 7th, they came to Portland, Oregon for a performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

In true ensemble fashion, the band members took the stage one at a time starting with mandolin master Sam Bush and ending with Béla Fleck, each layering in parts on opening tune “Blue Mountain Hop.” With the prestigious and first class roster of Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass, Fleck on banjo, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, the group hopped into the picking session “This Old Road,” showcasing some fine soloing from Meyer, who would follow up with his own song “Unfolding” that gave each member a chance to outdo the next with precise solo work. Everybody loosened up with the John Hartford classic “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie” sang by the radiant Sam Bush. The band members would trade occasional banter throughout the set, with Fleck cracking a few jokes and Douglas delivering light-hearted jabs at everyone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the band leaned heavily into My Bluegrass Heart, with songs like “Round Rock,” the barnyard number “Us Chickens,” the lush and mysterious “Our Little Secret” picked with classical prowess, and the frenetic roller coaster of “Vertigo.”   

Following a short set break, the band returned for another hour-long set that began with a couple of the more progressive tunes from the new album before letting Sutton take the lead on the classic-sounding bluegrass tune “Backwater Blues.” Other highlights of the second set would include the dramatic “Hunter’s Moon” and the lively country picking fest “Baptist Pumpkin Farm” that saw Bush joining up with Meyer and Duncan for – as Fleck proclaimed – a session of “two and a half fiddlers” that found the trio harmonizing to give the song a rich sense of warmth. Fleck would put some of his best banjo playing of the night on display for the set-closing “Tentacle Monster (Revenge of the),” a proper solo vehicle that contrasted classic bluegrass playing with more contemporary approaches. Those looking for the band members to spend more time playing older tunes got a little taste when they returned for an encore and played the title track off New Grass Revival’s 1977 album When the Storm is Over and followed it with the hyper-fast pick-off staple “Whitewater.”

As a whole, the show would have benefited from a louder sound system but at least the playing was crystal clear. Tuesday’s show in Portland felt like a reunion of sorts amongst old friends who share a magical musical chemistry. Each of these musicians has carved out his own place in the history of bluegrass, and this performance felt like Béla Fleck was bringing everyone together as a way of honoring their collective legacy as well as their future. For fans of these artists and bluegrass as a whole, you’d be hard-pressed to find such a talented lineup coming together onstage right now.

All photos by Greg Homolka

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