Béla Fleck and the Flecktones play Pittsburgh

Matt’s Big 3

What I Liked: The Individual Musicianship

Béla Fleck and The Flecktones are associated with many scenes: the hippie-friendly jam band scene, the ever-talented but ever-pretentious jazz scene, and the down-south bluegrass scene. One thing that sets the group apart in every one of these categories, however, is the fabulous individual musicianship that each of Flecktones brings to the plate.

Future Man (a.k.a. Roy Wooten), the group’s “drummer,” actually plays what he calls a Synth-axe Drumitar. The instrument, shaped like an electric guitar, is loaded with buttons that activate artificial drum and percussion sounds. But because of his competency on the real drum set, which he played occasionally at Tuesday night’s performance, he is able to groove just like a live drummer should.

Victor Wooten, Future Man’s brother and the Flecktones’ bassist, is well, simply amazing. “Vic” was left alone onstage in the middle of the first set for a solo, and, boy, did he impress. Whether it was breezing through the melody of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” or setting up dozens of loops of his own playing and jamming over them, Wooten proved he was not only a technical beast, but also a true innovator of his instrument.

Jeff Coffin, the group’s saxophone and clarinetist, trained at the prestigious University of North Texas, and has studied under jazz saxophone giant Joe Lovano. Coffin’s jazz technique undoubtedly came through at the concert Tuesday, as he blew through tracks with ferocious bebop licks with ease and clarity.

Fleck himself is no exception to the trend. With the technique of a bluegrass banjo player, the compositional prowess of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and the instrumental innovation of Jimi Hendrix, Fleck spits out good ol’ bluegrass lines on “Kaleidoscope,” writes fabulous jazz harmonies on the downtown New York-inspired “Who’s Got Three?” and catchy melodies on “The Whistle Tune,” and plays like a rock guitarist, with crunchy and incendiary lines, on the ever-funky rock of “Subterfuge.”

The individual technique, of course, comes together in the group’s stunning chemistry. As good as they were as individual musicians, they were even better as a band. During the show’s closer, “Stomping Grounds,” the guys traded solos with each other like jazz musicians, grooved like funk musicians, and built intensity to the song’s climax with the psychic powers of a jam band.

What I Liked: The Flecktones Were True Performers

While some groups take their work far too seriously, never stopping to talk between songs or even give a hint of a smile as they play, the Flecktones never ceased to amuse and entertain the audience. Between the moments of fabulous playing came moments of hilarity, as band members teased each other, debating who should get songwriting credit for “P’Lod Is In The House,” or whether or not Future Man is, well, from the future. With such a unique fan base of jazz cats and hippies alike, the Flecktones always made sure everyone in the audience was having a good time.

What I Didn’t Like

Although Vic’s solo was virtuosic and awe-inspiring to a youngster bass player, and although it was fun to watch just Fleck and Future Man jam together at the beginning of the second set, I wish there could have been a little more time devoted to the group’s playing. Since every member has a solo project of his own, the two-hour-plus concert should really be Flecktones time. If solo breaks are necessary (which they are), they should have been cut down.

Pat’s Big 3

What I Liked: Diversity of Musical Style

Just taking a quick glance at the instruments that the band’s members play shows all the different stylistic influences that affect the music they play. Fleck’s electric banjo seems to say pretty clearly: This band is something completely different.

At the same time, the Flecktones present audiences with a wide range of musical styles. From bluegrass to jazz, rock and roll to classical, the Flecktones touch on pretty much every musical style to create something unique.

For “Weed Whacker,” the Flecktones’ opening song, the members traded phrases in improvisation around the song’s main theme, reminding the audience of a jazz performance. Fleck would rip out a few measures on the banjo, and then pass the melody he’d created over to Coffin, who would then wail on it for a while and hand it off to Wooten. All the while, the audience heard bebop from Coffin’s saxophone and bluegrass breakdowns from Fleck’s banjo.

As the band launched into “Chennai,” things got a bit out there. Future Man and Coffin performed throat singing, a technique where one singer can produce two pitches, and Coffin played a Tibetan singing bowl. The band went through a raga, a classical Indian rhythm and progression, while continuing to trade phrases in improvisation.

During the two sets, the band played mostly songs from their most recent album, The Hidden Land, but also mixed in a few older tunes, including “Sinister Minister” as the encore and covers of the Beatles’ songs “Norwegian Wood” and “Come Together.” During his solo time on stage, Fleck also played a decorated rendition of the traditional song “There’s No Place Like Home.”

What I Liked: Audience Diversity

Covering so many musical styles, it should come as no surprise that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones appeal to a wide range of listeners. Sitting in the auditorium last Tuesday, audience members found themselves surrounded by quite a motley throng.

There were people dressed in tie-dyed T-shirts, and others in collared golf shirts; fans sported every hairstyle from dreadlocks to cue balls. More than a few people came to the show, which had been billed as part of the Mellon Jazz Series, dressed in sharp suits and ties, while many others opted for patchwork pants and skirts. There were young kids there, teenagers, college students, middle-agers, and old folks.

Most impressive was the fact that everyone got along famously. While the technical prowess of the musicians demanded the attention of most of the audience, the band managed to rivet devoted listeners to their seats, and inspired a few to do a hippy shuffle in the wings.

What I Didn’t Like

Although I’m fairly certain the lighting effects outweighed what might be expected from most ordinary jazz groups or bluegrass bands, with the talent behind the Flecktones I would have enjoyed a better light show. The simple solid color backdrop worked well, as did the stage lighting. Each of these sets of lights changed color as the mood of the music progressed and the technique worked well with music. However, the highlights left much to be desired. The spinning yin-yang with white and black bass clefs instead of little dots was just a little cheesy.

Matt and Pat’s final low-down on the Béla show

Three and a half stars: Despite the minor problems with the show, Béla Fleck and The Flecktones brought the house down on Tuesday night. They are fabulous musicians and entertainers that attract just an audience as diverse as the music they play, and although they may never make it into the mainstream like some jazz musicians or jam bands, they have carved out a special place in music history.