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Béla Fleck and the Flecktones LIVE! at the State Theatre New Jersey

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Christmas is in air in New Brunswick, NJ this Friday, December 6, 2019.

The town’s tree lighting event has hundreds braving the cool winter air, shoppers are checking out wares at a lively holiday street fair market, and lines are forming outside the State Theater New Jersey for a 30th Anniversary holiday season performance by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

Known for their unclassifiable mix of bluegrass, jazz, rock, classical, funk, and world music in a style sometimes referred to as “blu-bop,” Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is the Grammy-winning musical group created by the world-class banjo player, Béla Fleck.

Fleck, 61, was born in New York City. Named after the Hungarian composer Béla Bartok, Fleck was drawn to the banjo as a child after hearing Earl Scruggs play the The Beverly Hillbillies theme song on television and “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weissberg on the radio.

Years later, when Fleck was invited to perform on a PBS television special, he assembled a group featuring Victor Wooten on bass guitar; Roy “Future Man” Wooten on the “Drumitar,” a unique handheld percussion instrument he invented himself; and Howard Levy on harmonica and keyboards.

Following the TV appearance, Fleck decided to keep the band together, calling it Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. The group’s 1989 self-titled debut album, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, received a Grammy nomination, as did the unit’s 1991 sophomore effort, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, which reached #1 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.

In 1992, Levy left the band, but the group continued to record and tour as a trio, winning a 1997 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for their song, “Sinister Minister.” They received another Grammy for 2000’s Outbound, which featured new member Jeff Coffin on saxophone, in addition to guest vocal performances by singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin and Jon Anderson of Yes. Coffin also performed on the group’s holiday album, Jingle All the Way.

In 2011, when Coffin left The Flecktones to join The Dave Matthews Band, Levy returned to the fold and the band recorded their most recent studio album, Rocket Science. It is the original group of musicians on this recording which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the founding of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones on the band’s tour stop this evening at New Brunswick’s State Theatre New Jersey.

Inside the historic auditorium, while we wait for the show to begin, we chat with several audience members including Jack from Edison who tells us, “Béla Fleck used to be a bluegrass musician, but now he’s more of a progressive fusion jazz player. I really don’t know how to explain his music, but once you see him, you’ll understand — it’s progressive music, but you’ll be surprised by how relatable it is.”

Continuing, “The last time I saw him, I brought my brother-in-law and he was blown away,” Jack acknowledges, “Tonight, I brought my wife. The whole band has this ‘WOW’ effect to it — it’s good stuff! Every musician up there is at the top of his game — some of the best musicians you’ll ever hear. The last time I saw Béla Fleck he was playing banjo with one hand while he turned and talked to the guys behind him and didn’t miss a beat. He was amazing, and his percussionist, Future Man, is unbelievable, too.”

Relates Scott from Hopewell, “A couple of years ago I was having a conversation about bass players with my son and I was telling him about one of my favorites, Victor Wooten. When we heard Victor was playing with Béla Fleck we went to see them and we had a lot of fun. Similarly, when we found out they were playing here at the State Theatre tonight we just had to come out and see them again.”

Explains Scott’s son, Connor, “My dad introduced me to this music, and now I really enjoy it,” before acknowledging, “I can’t wait to see tonight’s show. ”

The lights dim as four musicians — banjo player Béla Fleck, keyboardist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten, and percussionist Future Man — silently take the stage.

Opening with a number from their debut album, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Howard Levy begins the space-age sounding intro to “Frontiers” playing on his twangy jaw harp. Fleck enters picking his country-sounding banjo while Levy switches over to harmonica before going over to the piano where he alternates playing both instruments.

As the music continues to percolate, Future Man plays the drums with one hand while playing the Drumitar with the other and his brother, Victor, grounds this rhythmic country-bop tune with a solid bass line. Under flashing rays of light, the arrangement becomes more bluesy and funky, alternating with a country flair bringing enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

As Levy accompanies with chords on the piano, Béla Fleck plays his solo running up and down the frets of his electric banjo.

Lastly, the song revolves back around as Levy plays harmonica again, changing the feel and groove of the performance and bringing avid cheers from the crowd.

Next up is a number from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, the uptempo, “Blu Bop.” On this countrified bebop tune, Fleck starts out on the banjo before Wooten’s bass and Levy’s grand piano add their voices. The melody flits and flutters in pointed spurts from the hands of these talented musicians while rays of blue light shoot onto the audience. Future Man stands playing his Drumitar and then he, Wooten, and Fleck watch as Levy’s fingers fly up and down the piano to cheery applause.

Future Man takes a seat behind his drum set to play the set with his right hand while playing the Drumitar with his left as bass and banjo walk beside. Here, Fleck takes the lead playing with lightning speed and precision on his banjo to wild cheers and applause as the two brothers, Future Man and Wooten, play facing one another. Audience members’ heads bop to the rhythm while lights flash.

Levy takes turns with Wooten and Fleck creating a round of featured licks and riffs that land in sequence, the performance ending in a flash of light to enthusiastic cheers and applause.

Up next is “Sex in a Pan,” a funk number which opens with Wooten playing with both of his hands placed closely together on the bass fretboard, bending the strings with tenderness and speed. Coaxing out the most incredible sounds from his electric bass, Wooten incorporates Tchaikovky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” into his solo, eliciting giggles of delight from the crowd.

Smiling as he funks it up, Wooten is joined by harmonica, banjo, and percussion on a low funky groove before Fleck takes over tuning and detuning his instrument as he plays, the duo’s amazing technique and musicianship impressing the audience.

Adding to the urgency of the song, Levy solos, the other instruments adding to the funk with tight stops and starts before inspiring hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Next up is a number from Rocket Science, “Life in Eleven,” which opens with Levy on harmonica incorporating snippets of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Let it Snow,” “White Christmas,” and Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” into his performance. The audience loves the spontaneity and irreverent nature of his presentation and explodes with applause. Lights flash as the rest of the musicians join him on this progressive country number.

First, Wooten and Levy play to each other.

Then, Fleck and Future Man play to one another, each musician’s part integral to the whole.

Punctuated by dancing lights, Levy moves back to the piano as he and his bandmates rock out. Wooten creates unbelievable sounds using effects on his bass, and Fleck solos, constantly shaping the sound as he stands and effortlessly spins his banjo tale.

Following cheers and applause from the avid crowd, Fleck takes a moment to greet the audience saying, “Thank you so much! How are you doing? It’s been 30 years of this band!”

At this point, Fleck introduces Levy calling him “the tall, thin Flecktone,” and Levy introduces Future Man as the band’s “visionary.”

Future Man then introduces his “youngest brother,” Victor Wooten, and, lastly, Wooten introduces Béla calling him “The big Flecktone,” and saying, “Keep it going for Béla Fleck!”

Announcing, “We’re going to go back to the first record we recorded in 1989,” Fleck introduces “Half Moon Bay.”

Opening with piano on this swinging jazz number, banjo, bass, and percussion soon join in.

Levy plays grand piano with one hand and harmonica with the other prior to impressing the crowd with a nifty harmonica solo. Fleck follows with an inspired banjo solo before the musicians go round and round on the tune’s circular melody, each sharing the gift of music with one another and the audience.

Another tune from Rocket Science, “Sweet Pomegranates,” is up next. Starting with harmonica and a drone played on the piano, Levy cries out on the harmonica while accompanying himself with one-handed piano playing on this world music-inspired piece. Purple and red lights encircle the stage when bass and banjo join the dance and percussion adds to the groove as the number morphs into a meandering tune of intrigue and mystery.

While instruments tell their stories, musicians change places on stage as they’re featured in the crescendoing cascade of sound that washes over the audience. Heads bop to the groove and intricate rhythms and dissonances appear.

As each new member is featured on this dramatic piece, the crowd cheers. Wooten slaps his bass on the neck, creating remarkable and unexpected sounds. Detuning and sliding, he makes his instrument twitter and scream as his fingers alternately caress and beat the strings on his rhythmic solo.

Magical chords and melodies shoot from Fleck’s fingertips as he makes his banjo sing on this number which — a la Dave Brubeck — explores polyrhythms which bring cheering, hoots, and hollers from the crowd.

Following a short intermission, Béla and the Flecktones return with a holiday-inspired number — a unique jazz-funk rendition of “Silent Night” in 5/4 time.

Wooten opens by laying down the groove with his bass, and Levy channels Toots Thielemans on his harmonica as he handles the melody while Fleck fingerpicks on the banjo and Future Man accents the rhythm on his Drumitar.

Turning this Christmas classic upside down, each musician puts his own spin on the tune before Levy attempts to slow things down, Future Man is highlighted on percussion, and the arrangement ends in unresolved fashion at which point the band segues into an uptempo Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass version of “Sleigh Ride.”

Audience members bop to the beat in their seats and holler on this boot-scooting version as Future Man keeps the swing beat happening on his drum set with a single drumstick. Fleck’s speed, accuracy, and technique impress the crowd as he solos before Levy takes over soloing at breakneck speed.

Wooten’s fingers fly as he plays the melody with embellishments — including a snippet of The Wizard of Oz’s “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead.”

The band ends with a cascade of perfectly articulated runs under red and green stage lights.

The audience cheers and Fleck asks, “You guys want to say goodnight to my son who’s watching on FaceTime?” Confessing, “We’ve never tried this before,” Fleck holds up his cell phone to the crowd and audience members respond and wave while Levy softly accompanies the scene on the piano playing Brahms’ “Lullabye.”

As Wooten continues to hold the phone, Fleck plays the electric banjo with digital delay, adding a mysterious space-age sound to Flight of the Cosmic Hippo’s “Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice).”

Soon, the band joins in, the group echoing the world music sound made popular in the 1990s by the Pat Metheny Group. Levy plays harmonica with his left hand and piano with his right as Wooten fingers his bass as though it’s a Chapman Stick, the two musicians watching each other as they handle the melody together on this tune in 7/4 meter. Future Man plays syncopated rhythms and accents on the Drumitar while lights flash and the song intensifies at the end.

Next up is another tune from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, “Turtle Rock.” On this rockin’ number, Future Man plays African rhythms on the set holding a drumstick with his right hand while playing a smaller version of his Drumitar, the Zendrum, with his left.

Picking up a second drum stick, Future Man holds it in his left hand to play while continuing to drum with his right hand on the set, even doing single-handed marching drum rolls as his feet work the set’s bass drum and cymbals.

Swiftly moving from drum to drum and back again with speed and precision, ultimately, Future Man switches over to his Drumitar, executing drum rolls and crescendoing his outstanding percussion playing to enthusiastic cheers and yells.

The band joins in with Fleck playing the electric banjo with distortion. Wooten rocks out on his bass like it’s a lead guitar before Levy plays a harmonica solo and Fleck leads with his electric banjo to the song’s big finish.

The crowd hoots and hollers and Fleck reacts by stating, “I think The Flecktones are one of the smartest bands around. We’re going to play ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ with each day in a different key and in a different time signature.”

After asking the audience, “What key should we start in?” a fan yells out, “E flat,” and Fleck and the band perform an arrangement of the song in which they not only shift key and time signatures as they play, but tempos as well.

As the challenging arrangement continues, Fleck holds up two, three, four, and more fingers to indicate what meter the group happens to be playing, making the audience laugh out loud when he sticks out his tongue when he runs out of fingers on the eleventh day of Christmas.

Audience members reward the band with a standing ovation for this clever and amazing performance.

The group follows up with “Sunset Road,” a lovely tune from their debut album. Fleck’s turn in the spotlight echoes that of a classical recital.

The audience sits in rapt attention on his stunning rubato performance which includes a snippet of “Jingle Bells” played in a minor key before Fleck quickly shifts into a bluegrass style. Ultimately, the entire band joins in as the song becomes an R&B shuffle and the audience is compelled to clap along to the irresistible groove.

Future Man is featured on lead vocals. After singing, “I stand alone/This is my life/No one to hold/No compromise,” Fleck gives him a thumbs up. Levy follows up with a chordal solo, his hands flipping right over left, as he’s expertly accompanied on bass and banjo.

Then, Fleck divides the audience into three sections and has each section clap on a different beat as he plays the banjo.

“You guys are good!” exclaims Fleck at the conclusion. “Thank you for being here. We’ve been playing this music for 30 years, and some of you have been listening for 30 years!”

Explaining how upon missing the birth of his son, he wrote the group’s next song “in the airport trying to get home,” Fleck and Co. launch into their final number of the evening, “Juno.”

On this happy-go-lucky country/jazz composition, each musician performs a tour-de-force solo after repeating the number’s catchy melodic motif.

By the end, the crowd is on its feet. The band takes a well-deserved bow and exits the stage, but the audience continues to cheer until the group returns for an encore.

Eventually, The Flecktones retake the stage where the group launches into its Grammy-winning “The Sinister Minister.”

Levy starts off playing scraper and harmonica while Wooten lays down the bass line on this Latin number which echoes the spirit of Carlos Santana.

Levy wails on a wild harmonica solo and Fleck follows with a distorted electric banjo solo, playing up and down his instrument as orange lights swirl over the audience.

Moving as he plays, Wooten plays an impossible slap funk solo, moving as he plays incalculably difficult rhythms.

Segueing into a swing feel and then back into a funk rhythm with a vengeance, Wooten twirls his bass around his neck on its strap before catching it just in the nick of time to recommence playing the song.

The crowd leaps to its feet one last time as band members toss small stuffed hippos into the audience, bowing one last time to excited cheers before exiting.

As audience members filter their way out of the State Theatre auditorium, we chat with several in the crowd who share their thoughts with us about Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ concert this evening.

Remarks Jay from Allentown, PA, “This show was as good or better than I remember the group from 30 years ago.” Recalling, “1989 was a great year — I listened to Béla Fleck, the Berlin Wall came down, and I got married,” Jay acknowledges, “I love their old material, their new material, and their reimagined material, too.”

Kim from Allentown PA agrees adding, “They are all individually amazing — I think Howard Levy has two brains the way he plays harmonica and piano at the same time — and the sum of the group is even greater than its parts.”

Leigh from Point Pleasant recalls, “I first saw Béla Fleck and the Flecktones back in 1996. Since then, I attended a music camp outside of Nashville run by Victor Wooten. It’s incredible how Victor can take musicians of all different levels and on all different instruments and get them to make music together, and during the concert, I was wondering how I could get myself back to that place.”

Continuing “The concert was outstanding — I truly felt it,” Leigh suggests, “It was a great set of tunes, and you could see how much fun the musicians were having on stage — so how could we, as the audience, not have a good time, too?”

Buddy from East Village agrees asserting, “They are all virtuosos, not to mention really nice guys,” adding, “I’ve been a fan since the ’90s, but I’m also a bass player and I’ve taken lessons from Victor Wooten.”

Commenting, “The group was phenomenal tonight,” Buddy indicates, “They are an innovative instrumental group that has been able to withstand the test of time in an age where instrumental bands are few and far between.”

Chris from High Bridge calls tonight’s show, “Fabulous” noting, “Howard Levy was stunning, but I loved them all!” Acknowledging, “I hadn’t seen them in 12 years,” Chris reveals, “I expected the show to be 90% as good as it was back then, but, really, it turned out to be 130% as cool!”

Confesses Alwin from Hillside, “I’ve been waiting a long time to see Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in person, and they lived up to all my expectations — they’re great!”

Hannah from Virginia concurs adding, “I loved them — I’m absolutely so glad I came tonight!”

Lastly, we chat with Dora from Woodside who calls this evening’s concert, “Awesome!” Noting, “I liked the encore, ‘Sinister Minister,’ the best,” Dora reveals, “and I loved it when they did ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ in all those different time signatures — that was pretty cool,’ before exclaiming, “All four of these guys are just monsters on their instruments!”

To learn more about Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, please go to flecktones.com. For information on upcoming concerts at State Theatre New Jersey — including Ladysmith Black Mambazo on February 5, Boyz II Men on February 14, and Golden Oldies Spectacular starring Jay and The Americans, B.J. Thomas, Lou Christie, Dennis Tufano, and the 1910 Fruitgum Company on March 21 — please click on stnj.org.

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