Béla Fleck & The Flecktones
In São Paulo

By Martin Longley

Fleck is one of the leading figures in American roots music, with a vast load of albums stacked behind him, beginning with old-timey picking feasts on the Rounder label, and ending up with The Flecktones, his forward-looking fusion combo.

He's visiting Brazil for the first time, and the capacity crowd is rather excitable. I'm attending the nine o'clock show, but Fleck had already added an extra performance at five. He's chosen an excellent venue: the Auditório Ibirapuera in the big park of the same name, designed by Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer, who is a rival to Spain's Antoni Gaudí in the organically curvaceous stakes, similarly obsessed with banishing all straight lines from his buildings. The theatre's entranceway has a delightfully pointed crimson-tongue canopy, enticing visitors inwards. The foyer features a spiralling red-flick Danish pastry of wall-ribbons, and the audience promenade up to their seats via one of Oscar's trademark winding ramps. Best of all, the rear of the stage is capable of opening up to reveal the parklands outside, offering great opportunities for dramatic performance strategies. Well, not tonite, actually. The portal remains firmly shut for the duration, but I did witness it in action on another occasion...

Fleck is no mountain-dwelling banjo grizzler. Instead, he was born in New York, and got turned on to the five-string by hearing Earl Scruggs play the theme tune for the Beverly Hillbillies. So suitably, Bela never stuck to old-timey bluegrass, but was soon discovering bebop, funk, rock and classical music, all of which he co-opted into what needs to be called a fairly radical approach to the banjo.

Fleck moved to Boston and joined New Grass Revival early in his career, also signing a solo contract with Rounder Records. He formed The Flecktones in 1989, and their line-up has remained virtually the same ever since, with Jeff Coffin (saxophone), Victor Wooten (bass) and FutureMan, who specialises in the synthaxe drumitar, which sounds exactly like its name suggests. The band set out to make blu-bop sounds, a fusion of bluegrass and jazz, with a few other bonus styles added too. Last year, they released The Hidden Land, and its successor is already imminently threatened.

Sometimes, Fleck's albums can sound over-processed with special effects, removing some of the innate qualities of both his banjo and the other Flecktone instruments, running the risk of washing their sound into musicianly blandness. It's all much more convincing in the flesh, and Fleck's axe appears largely untreated. Even Coffin's saxophones only receive the warbly funked-up sonic transformation on a few occasions, and the bass/percussion brothers have a harsher bite when heard live. Who knows what to call this music? It's neither here nor there, co-opting elements of jazz, country, funk and rock into a seamless hybrid that has a peculiarly Flecktonic stamp.

If their earlier set was as long as this one, these guys certainly have no jet-lag. They don't let up for nearly two-and-a-half hours, showing a remarkable lust for playing. We could have done without the long stretches where each band member gets to show off their solo prowess, as these interludes so often turn into music showroom demonstrations. Fleck's own acoustic sequence was the most worthwhile, allowing us to savour the clank and ring of his beautifully tinny strings.

Mostly, though, the Flecktones were firing off with eloquent vigour, their complicated arrangements not suffering from over-cerebral control. Fleck is an understated leader, preferring to just play. Almost all of the pieces are instrumentals, with FutureMan doing a brief impersonation of a tight-trousered Prince. Speaking of threads, this is a band with a twilight cartoon existence. Fleck is the straight man, but Cotton is draped in baggy New Age brightness and FutureMan has clearly borrowed his flamboyantly piratical outfit from a theatrical costumerers. In contrast, he pushes buttons on his drumitar, triggering electronic percussion sounds, and sometimes half-perching in front of an old-fashioned kit, using just one soon-to-be-disintegrated stick. A Brazilian mandolin player, Hamilton de Holanda, makes a guest appearance on a couple of numbers, engaging in a convincing duel with Fleck's banjo. The crowd goes apeshit, and this reviewer would have gone slightly more apeshit himself if the gig had been shorn of thirty minutes, mostly those musicianly solo displays.
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