In Which I Meet the Flecktones

When Bela Fleck started the Flecktones, he wasn’t just looking for a group of musical collaborators. He wanted mentors.

“I started this band because these are guys that I felt like I could study with for life and learn things from. Each person could become my teacher,” he says, surrounded by his band during a break at the Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival.

The annual bluegrass-hued festival in October took shape on top of Mulberry Mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks. The leaves were changing, the sky was clear, and though there was the occasional whiff of the old high lonesome thing, the music was overwhelmingly progressive, a diverse mix of sounds, genres and sub-genres, but with a free-form, high-wire bluegrass aesthetic thread.

The otherworldly Flecktones exemplified this, and I’d never seen any of them before. They were probably the main reason I’d driven the 25-year-old pickup truck with the broken speedometer from Georgia to Arkansas – well, them and the fact that my daughter Sam had recently moved there, and I wanted to see her, and hoped she would join me and the hippy throng and dig the Flecktones, etc.

She did dig them, in fact, and saw them twice on Saturday, first playing their own set, and later when they jammed with the Yonder Mountain String Band. My daughter the math teacher (and anything else she chooses to be), who usually prefers Korn to Cornmeal (who, by the way, also blew our minds at Harvest Fest).

“Not your typical banjo music, dad,” she says. “Not what I expected.”

It’s Fleck, so it is something better than typical banjo music, and the Flecktones, that’s his invention. It’s, what? Jazzgrass world fusion? Fleck has called it “crazy dream” music.

It’s Howard Levy, a musical Da Vinci whose singular harmonica overshadows his masterful piano.

It’s Roy “Futureman” Wooten, a percussionist and inventor who created the ‘drumitar,’ which is exactly what it sounds like, and his younger brother, Victor Wooten, who is so terrific a bass player that for a moment I almost forgot Jaco Pastorious once walked the Earth (or that Stanley Clarke still does).

These are Bela Fleck’s teachers.

“Each of these guys is a guru, and there are things that they do so much better than I do, so much that I can learn from, and that hasn’t changed, that’s exactly the way it’s always been,” Fleck says.

“But I haven’t always take advantage of the learning opportunity as much as I wish I had. It used to dawn on me, ‘man, there’s a lot I could be learning.’ Then we went our separate ways for a while and I was away from these guys, these great sources of so many wonderful things.”

After Levy left the Flecktones in 1992, the band continued to thrill for many years with saxophonist Jeff Coffin. This whole original Flecktones reunion thing probably would not be happening if tragedy hadn’t steered Coffin toward his current gig with the Dave Matthews Band.

In August 2008, sax player LeRoi Moore, a founding-member of the Dave Matthews Band, died from injuries suffered in an ATV accident. Coffin was invited to sub with the band.

“The Flecktones were on a pretty relaxed schedule anyway, we weren’t doing very much for about three years, and suddenly Jeff had this incredible gig, and they offered him a fulltime position,” Fleck says. “We told him he should do it, because it’s probably the best job a sax player can have in the world right now, so go do it and don’t worry about us, we’ll figure something out. And that actually opened the door to this possibility.

“We’d been with Jeff for 14 years, so we’d really done a lot of things together, tried reinventing the band several times with him, really tried a lot of stuff, and there wasn’t a lot of energy right then to do a new album or figure out what to do next or how to do it, so when he left and was no longer available, the idea of doing it with Howard became very appealing because it was like, wow, we can go back and explore what we didn’t get to finish all those years ago.”

That exploration led to the creation of the album Rocket Science, released last May, and the first with Levy in the regular lineup since 1992. An occasionally transcendent, seamless genre-bending stew, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz chart. One of the tracks, Life in Eleven, co-written by Fleck and Levy, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.

So, with Levy on board the band has toured rigorously for the past year, playing sold out venues and the festival circuit, hitting the mega fests like Bonnaroo and the more intimate events, like the Harvest Fest.

My truck lurched into the venue early Friday afternoon. Saturday morning, I stumbled out of my tent in search of coffee, which led me across the main stage lawn. I’d never seen them, but I knew it was the Flecktones from half a mile away. Me and about two dozen other early risers caught the soundcheck. A few hours later, caffeinated, I was sitting with the Flecktones at a round table in the makeshift press area.

Apparently, while I was drinking moonshine with my next-door campers the night before, class was in session for Fleck, who says he stayed up late with Levy, “learning some odd meters, some music I didn’t know existed.

“It’s the same kind of thing with Futureman or Victor – a conversation gets started and before long I’m learning stuff that I didn’t even know to ask about.”

The key is to always ask, which is something these guys aren’t afraid to do.

“I think everyone in this group has limitless musical curiosity and they’re willing to explore new ideas, to extend themselves into areas they’re not comfortable with. It’s kind of a requirement for being in the band,” Levy says.

Then Futureman goes off on how intense these musicians are, the four of them, and he uses the word “intense” about a dozen times in a couple of minutes, because he really means it, and he’s marveling at the fact that they didn’t reunite so they could play all their old tunes. “No,” he says, “we’re taking a different snapshot.”

And his brother Victor is telling me about Col. Bruce Hampton, because I asked him, and he’s saying, “Bruce is one of those guys, you know, you have to listen to everything he says, and it’s like, he keeps you guessing. That’s the thing I like about him. He’s one of those visionaries.”

But what I want to know now is, how do the Flecktones, these intense people, tell jokes to each other on stage, in the middle of work, because you know it happens, you see it all the time if you’re watching live music, one guy laughing at another guy playing his part on the other side of the stage, sending messages, and I want in on the joke.

“Howard does a lot of quotes in the middle of a song,” Fleck says, talking a bit of shop to the untrained interloper, which is my part. “So, when we’re in Texas he’ll play Yellow Rose of Texas, but in a minor key and in a different part of the scale, and he’s starting it on the third beat, and I hear it, but I don’t know if anyone else is hearing it, and then I’ll respond with the rest of the line underneath.

“Then the other night it was Roy’s birthday and we were playing Sunset Road, and I started playing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song all through my solo and I don’t think anybody picked up on it,” Fleck says, looking around at his mates, looking longest at Levy.

“Did you know I was doing it, Howard? I kept looking at everybody. I stayed on ‘Happy Birthday’ for about three choruses …”

At which point, Levy cuts in, “yes, Bela, it was transmogrified.”

Finally I ask Fleck the question I’ve been waiting to ask: Do you know any good banjo jokes? My phrasing was all wrong, and probably too specific. I should have just said, “Tell me a banjo joke.” But I didn’t.

So, Fleck says, “I don’t think there any good banjo jokes.”

I beg to differ, there are quite a few, but then we are men of vastly different standards, probably, and “good” to Bela Fleck is something different than “good” to me, although the one about the snake going to a gig is funny by any reasonable measure.

But God bless Howard Levy, who interjects, “I came up with a good harmonica joke. How many harmonica players does it take to change a light-bulb? None, because everyone knows that harmonica players can’t make the changes.”

Not as damning as the banjo jokes – which could explain Fleck’s opinion of banjo jokes – but funny nonetheless. And the interview was over.

A few hours later, after the Flecktones’ scorching, seizure-inducing Saturday night jam with the host String Band, our jaws – my daughter’s and mine – came to rest on the lawn with the footprints, the ground score and the cigarette butts. It was just like Futureman promised it would be. Intensity squared.

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