- All photos courtesy of Ryan Killackey
Bela Fleck sits quietly backstage tuning a banjo as Abigail Washburn, who happens to be Fleck’s wife, floors the roughly 4500 concert goers that have assembled in the pavilion and on the lawn at Wolftrap on this hot, sunny afternoon in Vienna, VA. Playing a sort of country-gone-traditional-gone-world music mish mash, Washburn and her band belt out songs of love and hope gone wrong in the typical Nashville way…and then she does it all in Mandarin. Known for having her finger on a slightly stranger, more worldly musical pulse her performance is as strong as it is captivating. It’s familiar, yet feels just a little off in all the right ways. After the song, she leaves the stage to swap out her instrument with one Fleck has been tuning. The two flash a smile and then it’s back to the stage to finish out their set while Fleck retreats to the dressing rooms to get ready for their performance later on in the evening..
Such was the tone for this year’s version of Bela Fleck's Acoustic Planet Tour. Familial and assured, it seems that every artist not only shared the common bond of musicianship, but that of family, if only a temporary one. Onstage and behind it, there was a real sense of supportiveness that surpassed the necessity that the show required (individual sets didn’t so much and as flowed into one another) and seemed to be born of genuine affection between this assembled group of musicians. As Washburn’s set neared its end, members of The Carolina Chocolate Drops appeared from the wings to sit in as well as ease into their set. The transition was seamless and would be repeated later. It also offered a unique glimpse into the world of working musicians. These people sit in with people all the time, YOU just don’t usually get to see it.
Over the years I’ve been able to catch this tour at least a handful of times, and the lineup is always different. It also almost almost always exposes you to someone you might not have heard of otherwise. This year though, the musicians all seemed to just “fit” together. Washburn, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones all share a distinct "offness" in their approach to music. It’s an irreverence that not only defines them but elevates them as artists. As seriously good musicians as Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are (Fleck has been nominated for a Grammy in more categories than any other musician. SERIOUS!) , there has also been a silly, sometimes deeply silly, side to the band and their approach to the music that they've made together over the past 22 odd years. And apparently it’s contagious.
Dressed in traditional Depression Era garb and singing a blues that would do Robert Johnson proud, the band performs on banjo, fiddle, kazoo, clapper, jug, and as if that wasn’t enough they throw in human beatbox? Yes, you read that right. The Drops less rely on the sound of depression era blues as their focus then they do drape it over their music as a backdrop. It’s a subversive and infectious take on not just the blues, but elements of world music, as well as modern pop. It’s also this mad genius approach to their music that, in a few short years, has catapulted them to the Grammy winning position that they sit in today.
Their set Sunday was lively, full of humor, and downright satisfying. Eventually though it was time to start moving on to the main event, and as the stage was rearranged behind the Chocolate Drops, both Wooten's Victor and Roy (aka Futureman), came to the stage to sit in on bass and box drum respectively. As the sun set over the hillside behind concertgoers with their picnic baskets and wine, the music slowly became something else, until eventually there was only Bela Fleck and his Flecktones left under the cool red lights.
Reuniting the original lineup of the Flecktones (Bela Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass, Futureman on..um..whatever that thing is, and Art Levy on keys) the band tore into material from their latest album, Rocket Science, and played with a tightness that seemed not so much learned, but earned. There can be no overstating the importance Levy’s return and what it brings to the group. Jeff Coffin was masterful in his turn with the Flecktones, but Levy's playing is delivered with a gravitas, seriousness and skill that seem to ground the rest of the group even if they've just taken journey into the farthest reaches of outer musical space. The aural acrobatics of the Flecktones have always been fairly jaw dropping, but what came before might as well have all been rehearsal. They’ve come back from the stratosphere, and this time they mean business.
Bringing out fiddler and fellow Nashvillian, Casey Driesen, to play on the last few songs, only added to the band’s already out of this world sound, and in fact it became clear that Driesen had come armed with his own bag of tricks, which he wasn’t afraid to use. Standingtoe to toe with his band leader, matching him note for note, elevated the already fantastic set to barnburner status, and the crowd reacted in kind.
And then it was done, at least for the audience. As all of the musician's joined the Flecktones to perform one last (expected) number, the evening came to a close (Though not before Washburn led the crowd in a sing-a-long of “Happy Birthday” to "Dr. Fleck", complete with cake and candles). As the lights went down and the cast of musician's assembled backstage to say their temporary goodbyes (this was to be the last show for the next 10 days) and wish Bela Fleck a happy birthday, they broke out in a collective rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, dancing joyfully around each other, arms clasped, smiles beaming. This was a night all about music and the bond that it can form in all of us. Privately though, it was about the bond that these musicians have formed, and I have to imagine that it was a pretty special birthday for Bela Fleck; it certainly was special for everyone in attendance Sunday night at Wolftrap.