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Alright, it's 7:37 in the morning, and I'm at work, after getting back from Tulsa at 1:30 this morning. What am I doing up, other than making a bit of money? Why, writing you a concert review, of course! William knows no bounds of 'poetry' and 'prose!' LOL...too pretentious? Ah, well. Here's the deal. Last night was my third time to catch Béla Fleck and the Flecktones within about 16 months, this time on the 'Acoustic Planet' tour, in a show featuring Keller Williams, the Yonder Mountain String Band, and, of course, the Flecktones. Let's start out from the beginning. All three of these artists/groups have a fairly large cult following, appealing to all ages, but with the primary following (at least, at concerts) is among college students, and, more importantly, hippies. Yes, folks, get out the tear gas, it's time to break up some hippie drum circles and hacky-sack games. Expect to come home smelling like a cocktail of smokes, both tobacco and...otherwise. However, if you can bear the free love and rampant drug use in the audience, you'll come to realise that, however, the artists themselves are completely squeaky clean, and beautifully so. I suppose their music would, in fact, blow my mind even more while high, but, as a practicing musician (at least, I'd LIKE to think that I'm one), all three acts did a more-than-adequate job of mind blowing in the span of a 4 hour concert. The venue was the River Parks Amphitheater in Tulsa, OK. A pleasant, intimate venue, right on the Arkansas River, complete with floating stage. It's normally used for small symphonic performances. A really nice outdoor venue, taking place on the most beautiful night I've seen in Oklahoma in the past month. Perfect for this concert, with a nice breeze to help the hemp smoke dissipate fairly quickly (I kid because I love...I'm a hippie, myself, on principle, just without the drug culture and free love--I have to pay for mine {boy, do I pay}).

Let's start out by saying this was the most incredible concert I've ever had the pleasure of attending. Expect that word many times throughout this review. I'll try to use my thesaurus a bit, but eventually, I will run out of words. My buddy Trey and I had about the best seats in the house, acoustically speaking (we took a moment beforehand to scope out the area, and promptly took seats on the grass about 7 feet behind the sound and light boards), so we really got the full experience at the concert.

Keller Williams started off the evening. I'd never had the opportunity to hear this INCREDIBLY talented artist. Performing in cutoff khaki shorts and a maroon-ish polo-style shirt, completely barefoot the entire time, Williams was the quintessential one-man show. All of his records are recorded by himself. Rather, I should say, every instrument on the record is played by him. Now, artists have been doing this for years, from David Bowie to 'Weird Al' Yankovic to Ben Folds. The real difference here, other than a STARTLING control and knowledge of all the physical realms of each instrument, is that at the concert, he played every instrument, himself, as well...LIVE. Sit and stew on this for a moment. He didn't just stand and play guitar while singing. He used a lovely bit of technology that, through a combination of foot pedals and a small soundboard he had onstage with him, allowed him to play a riff, or a pattern, on one instrument, press a pedal, and that part would repeat. He would then switch instruments and create another loop. This would continue until he had an unbelievably complex set of polyrhythmic jams going, including percussive instruments I know, lovingly, as Boom-Whackers, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, vocalised horns (I can't stress this enough--he's one WEIRD dude), and synth guitars (at different points in the evening, he had his electric guitar patched through to piano and steel drum synths). His guitar licks were second to none, really showcasing his complete grasp of everything the instrument can do, playing with fret tapping, artificial harmonics, and just some really hot licks. His vocals were clean, clear, upbeat, and lighthearted. This was a really fun way to start off a concert, highlighted nicely by a guest spot by Jeff Coffin, from the Flecktones, on clarinet. Background vocals, also, were supplied from a mysterious source that we only realised more than halfway through his act, were coming from the man operating the soundboard! Talk about multi-tasking! If you've never heard of Keller Williams or, at least, never had the chance to hear him, whether live or in the studio, check him out. With a nice blend of jazz, funk, rock and roll, techno, country, and a touch of reggae and bluegrass, you won't be disappointed.

Williams' part of the show ended with a nice transition, brought into action when the boys from the Yonder Mountain String Band joined him onstage in the midsection of the obligatory 'farewell' tune.

Now, before I continue with the concert description and review, let me just say something that most people who know me might be slightly shocked to hear from my...keyboard. Bluegrass music really doesn't get enough credit for all it can be these days. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy my share of incredibly complex, sometimes stupidly convoluted music, but there are few styles of music with such organic, natural flow, and glorious balance between simplicity in chords and hefty improvisational soloing as bluegrass music. However, that's a rant for another day. Moving on...

The Yonder Mountain String Band is a troupe of four blokes out, in a roundabout fashion, of Boulder, Colorado. Their blend of rock and roll with bluegrass and 'newgrass,' with a very small touch of jazz creates a great return to the roots of American music at its best. Each member of the band has an autonomous virtuosity, which works really well in ensemble form, especially in the realm of Bluegrass. Another really fun act, with some really GREAT music. And, of course, what concert, whether rock, jazz, or, yes, even bluegrass, can get by without a Beatles cover? Not this one! This time, it was 'And Your Bird Can Sing' from the Revolver album. I couldn't help but feel a bit bad for banjo player Dave Johnston, not only going on before one of the greatest, most acclaimed, most diverse, award-winning banjoists in the world, Béla Fleck himself, let alone SHARING the stage with him during one tune.

The Yonder Mountain boys ended their set, like the one before them, with a transitional piece that brought in all four members of the Flecktones, one at a time, which then transitioned into one of their original tunes.

If you've never heard of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones...wait...Where the hell have you been the last 15 years? The only plausible excuse is that you've been on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, or you haven't had the chance to have a 10-minute conversation with me, :) These guys are absolutely, mind-bogglingly, equilibrium-throwing-offingly incredible musicians, all such masters at their instruments that the word 'virtuoso' should be retired once they leave the scene, if that ever happens.

First off is the group's namesake, Béla Fleck (named after composer Béla Bartok) on his vast assortment of banjos and uniquely modified guitars, including, but not limited to, a Pre-War Gibson acoustic banjo, a Deering Crossfire electric banjo, and a Swiss-made Paradise with independent string pickup! Fleck is a multi-grammy award winning artist, having awards in jazz,
bluegrass, pop, spoken word and country. Watching the man solo, whether in jazz, bluegrass, or his mix of more than 10 different styles of music that he has termed 'Blu-Bop,' is an ethereal, religious experience. Half of his playing is done eyes-closed, and it seems as though his picking hand is just on auto-pilot for the entirety of the concert.

Next comes sax player/all-around woodwind guy Jeff Coffin. A man who can switch between embouchures (not to mention transpositions and fingering patterns) in the blink of an eye, from tenor to alto to soprano sax, to clarinet and flute, needless to say, is a man of many talents. The really impressive bit in his playing isn't simply his virtuosic knack for improvisation, but his ability to constantly change what he's doing, whether morphing styles or actually changing instruments, mid-solo. During several tunes, such as his 'Two Horny Blues,' he has even been known to jam on two saxes at once (which, I hear, feels REALLY weird, having two different pressures on either side of your mouth). His contribution to the group is unquestionable, taking the place of Howard Levy, who left the group in around 1995 to spend more time with his family.

Third in line is the man himself, Mr. Victor Lemonte Wooten! This man is, literally, the best bass player in the WORLD, for more than 7 years running, now, perhaps of all time, cementing his place right beyond Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report with his incredible licks, seamless motion, and flow perfection all hanging out for the world to see. The things this man can do with only his thumb could stop a nuclear war, and it's only more impressive when he uses all of both hands. Every time the man solos, whether on his Fodera Monarch Yin Yang 4 string or his beautiful 5-string fretless. Utilising not only standard jazz bass technique, but also integrating extended technique such as funk-style slap bass, full chords, MidiVerb looping, artificial harmonics (really amazing in his rendition of Amazing Grace), fret tapping (in the 'typewriter' style, often used by John Entwistle of the Who), off-the cuff tuning changes, and many MANY more, a solo from this man can truly knock you off your feet, take your shoes off, remove your socks, then replace the shoes with a new bright shine. Victor also performs very occasional lyrical contributions, as well, such as his free jazz rap, 'The Message.'

Finally, direct from the year 2050, using recycled technology from 1984 in ever-changing, always new and inventive ways, Futureman, aka Roy-El. He's actually Victor's brother, but his persona is straight from a far-off place. Using an invention of his own devising, known as the Synth-Axe Drumitar, along with a small drum set, Futch is able to play both drums and other percussion all at the same time, thanks to good old-fashioned MIDI technology. The Drumitar is a piece of equipment that looks like a guitar, except, instead of strings and frets and such, it has a series of buttons and levers, each plugged in to a different percussion sound. The drumitar is also the only instrument onstage without a wireless pickup, as it has to be hard-wired through a big, clunky MIDI cable. The technology, however, while dated in protocol, is revolutionary in concept. One can only imagine the months and years it took him to work out the intricacies of the instrument, to the point where he can work in synth and real life simultaneously with no separation between the two. He also has several other musical inventions at his disposal, the most recent addition being an instrument not unlike a modified piano, but with a tuning based, through his own inspiration, on the Periodic Table of Elements.

Anyway, moving back to the concert...As this was a joint tour (hippies, I'm watching you...don't get any ideas!), the Flecktones' set was a bit shorter than previous shows, though ever note, as always, was picture-perfect. In the nine months since their last appearance in Tulsa, their styles have branched even further, now experimenting slightly in even more extended tonalities and even some Sun Ra style free jazz. The sound mix and lighting was even a treasure to behold. Peeking down at the lightboard, the tech working it was dead on with every cue, at times, even looking as though he were typing on the sliders, his motion was so fluid. They opened with a piece from their latest album, the Three CD 'Little Worlds,' which transitioned, at the end, directly into solo time with Béla, who indulged us with a banjo interpretation of Bach's Prelude to Partita No. 3 for Violin. This moved into a brand new piece, only a couple weeks old, apparently, which was a really nice offering. It started with a samba, and through the course of the next 12 minutes, morphed through at LEAST 8 other styles of music, including bluegrass, smooth jazz, bebop, funk, rock and roll, and avant-garde free jazz. I'll be looking for this one on the new album, whenever it comes out. They then moved on to one of my favorites from their 'Outbound' album, titled 'Earth Jam.' At least the third or fourth time I've heard it performed live, it truly is ever changing, different in each rendition. Listening to it, I found Fleck moving into really unique, experimental tonalities, really a completely autonomous presentation from any version I've heard before. After another from 'Little Worlds' and another couple of new tunes, their solo part of the show ended with another awesome spot from 'Outbound,' featuring Futureman's vocal prowess as the Roy-El, 'A Moment so Close.' Utilising middle eastern-style tonalities and ornamentation, mixed with the absolutely gorgeous sound propagating from Béla's Swiss-made Paradise guitar and another phenomenal solo by Victor Lemonte Wooten, the piece was a perfect closer for the show, leaving us yearning and begging for an encore. We were not disappointed.

The fourth and final leg of the show featured an all-star jam session of all three acts that night: Keller Williams, the Yonder Mountain String Band, and the Flecktones, all on stage in one giant orgy of mind-numbingly fantastic music. The session started out with a bluegrass rendition of a hodgepodge medley of Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' and Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower.' With solo after solo, following in the bluegrass style, plus, of course bass entries by Mr. Wooten, lighters were raised high (when not lighting pipes and joints, of course) through the very last line, delivered by Williams, proclaiming '...and she's buying a stairway to....Watchtower...' One couldn't help but laugh, cheer, and copiously applaud the random, fully improvisational conglomeration of impeccable talent. They then moved on and ended the 'official' show with a Southern gospel classic, again in tear-jerkingly perfect bluegrass style, 'Jesus is on the Main Line.' The boys brought a little bit of church to the town of Tulsa with this one, and you couldn't help but move to the music. I mean, there was no physical way you could sit or stand still with this going on, it was so infectious.

In the encore, as their own gospel to the world, to the United States, and to people everywhere, from the 'Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' album, 'the Message,' featuring the lyrical stylings of Victor Lemonte Wooten in this jazz-fusion/rap. With uplifting lyrics and eternal variance of solos, with a killer funk-based bass line throughout, this was the photo-frame perfect ending for a concert of this calibur, featuring such galaxy class performers.

You know, Flecktones concerts always seem to come around at the most perfect times. Right when I'm reaching the point where I need, desperately, affirmation that my choice of career and choice of life is the right thing, that making music really can make a difference in the world around us, they come along and recharge my faith in the power of music. Even through the throngs of grass-smoking hippies, their message reached me loud and clear. Alas, after this tour wraps up, the Flecktones have decided to take the entire year of 2005 off of the road; a well deserved rest, as they've been touring almost nonstop since 1989. However, if you happen to hear about them coming within 200 miles of you, you should definitely spend the time and money to go see them. They're worth every minute, they're worth every penny.

William A. Corder

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You can check out any information you want about any of the three artists/groups mentioned here at:

Keller Williams:
http://www.kellerwilliams.net

Yonder Mountain String Band:
http://www.yondermountain.com

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones:
http://www.flecktones.com

------
'He who knows others is learned. He who knows himself is wise.'
-Lao Tzu

'Tomorrow will take us away,
Far from home--
No one will ever know our names,
But the bards' songs will remain.
Tomorrow, all will be known,
And You're not alone,
So don't be afraid
In the dark and cold
'Cause the bards' songs will remain.
They all will remain
In my thoughts and in my dreams
They're always in my mind....
Come close Your eyes;
You can see them, too.'
Blind Guardian,
The Bard's Song: Into the Forest



Comments

The following comments are for "Tales from the Acoustic Planet"
by the Co.konspirator

an opportunity
William~

This is an excellent review, even though the subject matter is not on par with my usual tastes. Good show, old buddy old pal...

The real reason for the comment however is to sollict your help with a project. If you could contact me at bartleby816@hotmail.com. I'd be more than happy to share the details.

It's good to have you back and active again, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Bart

( Posted by: Bartleby [Member] On: August 20, 2004 )





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