Bela Fleck has been described in a lot of different ways.
"Best banjo player ever."
"Humblest superstar I know."
And it makes sense, because musically, he is a virtuoso, who moves effortlessly through styles and genres – and sometimes even makes up entirely new ones – while plying his trade alongside musicians from every conceivable background and style.
But until Friday night I had never heard Fleck described the way Flecktones bassist, Victor Wooten, did…
"This man has been nominated for every award in acoustic music," an admiring Wooten exclaimed. "He’s the Flava Flav of the banjo!"
Not sure what that really meant, but I’m going to assume that it’s complimentary. It should have been complimentary considering the show that Fleck and his ‘Tones – Wooten, FutureMan on the drumitar, and Howard Levy on harmonica and piano – had just delivered to a half full Crossroads crowd.
The night started out with a jammy feel, as Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers opened with a blend of guitar noodling, piano riffing, and laid back tunes to get the audience going. Most notable were the ripping lines of guitarist Doug Derryberry, whose improvisation and cool tone stole the first part of their set.
Hornsby rolled through a wide variety of his huge catalogue, including the favorite, "Halcyon Days," before seguing into a piano version of Bob Dylan’s "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," that was barely recognizable until the iconic wail of a chorus at the end:
"I just wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss…"
Hornsby and his band were in full bloom, easily settling the groove right in the right place and keeping the audience’s attention with – get this – great musicianship and great songs.
Nothing flashy, nothing gimmicky. When you’re this good you don’t need gimmicks.
He closed out his band’s set with a song that many would recognize as the "trademark" Hornsby sound – though I’m not sure if there is such a thing – "The Valley Road," off of 1988’s "Scenes from the Southside."
A gracious guy, after the set Hornsby came back onstage and promised he’d come back out in a little bit to jam with his buddies, the Flecktones.
Bela and his band entered the stage with a nod to the crowd and proceeded to jump right into the music. No pleasantries, no stories. None were necessary as Fleck let his music do the talking, and let his very accomplished bandmates take the spot light for the first half of the show.
And it seemed natural for him to do so.
Sure, Bela can probably play about ten million notes in a minute on that damn banjo, but he doesn’t have to. And that’s so refreshing. He was content to let Victor Wooten, a bass superstar in his own right, to step front stage and bask in the glow of the adoring crowd, while he himself slunk behind in the shadows, plunking away at his banjo and filling in behind the slap and pop of Wooten’s audacious solos.
He was content to let FutureMan – complete with pirate hat – fascinate the crowd with his combination of electric drumitar (he made it himself) and traditional percussion instruments.
As the Flecktones wound their way through improvisational jams, Bela transformed his banjo into and electric guitar, a mandolin, an acoustic guitar, and then back again.
Bruce Hornsby peeked his head out from the side of the stage, as if asking for permission to join in the jam session.
Come on out! Bela nodded approvingly.
So he did, grabbing one side of the grand piano set up stage right, as Levy played the other. Their interplay persisted, enough so that eventually all the other musicians dropped out to marvel at the piano battle that was taking place. Pounding furiously, yet in step, Levy and Hornsby leapfrogged each other and eventually culminated in a singular staccato ending that couldn’t have been planned.
Fleck, Wooten, FutureMan, and the crowd simultaneously grinned and offered both players a nice ovation.
Another highlight of the night was the green-shirted fiddle player, who appeared periodically to compliment the more traditional bluegrass-y songs that made their appearance throughout the night. Again, Fleck was more than willing to let this player take center stage and receive all the adulation.
The night closed, appropriately, with collaboration, as Hornsby re-appeared (again) as promised. The musicians flew through an open jam that went from Weather Report‘s "Birdland," and eventually ended with a nice version of Yonder Mountain String Band’s "Little Maggie."
Despite the disparate genres, eras, and styles, these musicians made everything fit right in there, like everything was in its right place.
There’s truly something to be said for that.