Toronto – Here’s the thing about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ (or, the ORIGINAL Flecktones, if you’re a stickler) Jazz Festival set. It was excellent, bordering on utterly brilliant, except for one thing: it would’ve been better if it had been shorter by three songs.
This isn’t about the set going too late (again), and I wasn’t the only one who noticed it, as my compatriot Mark said the same thing. Bela Fleck, along with bandmates Victor Wooten, Howard Levy and Futureman played brilliantly all night. Their solos were breathtaking, their call-and-response playing was mesmerizing, and the band built to an incredible climax with “Big Country” alongside fiddler Casey Driessen…then lost all momentum with a rather indulgent, noodly tune of loosely connected solos called “Rocket Science,” a lengthy introduction of each band member, then two more songs not half as good as “Big Country” before leaving the stage. Granted, they did impress with an utterly insane encore, featuring a long solo by Wooten, who’s bass playing is unlike any I’ve ever seen before. But still, the set sort of resembled a roller coaster where the excitement climbed to a thrilling, dizzying height, then flatlined before climbing again all-too-briefly and ending.
Opening act 5 After 4 were good, but not real memorable after Fleck and his crew ripped up the stage. Drummer Vito Rezza and his band, who are apparently all career session musicians, play 80’s-reminiscent smooth jazz. To my ear, they sound like they could’ve been doing the soundtrack to an 80’s cop movie, actually. A good 80’s cop movie soundtrack, though. You could sort of picture Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte going through a montage where they’re mad at each other to the music, right before they get back together and catch the bad guys. I’m not being as flattering to 5 After 4 as I meant to be here. They were not bad.
I don’t mean to be hard on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones either. The only reason I point out the uneven set and the loss of momentum is because minus the three songs before the encore, this show was probably a five out of five. Fleck’s five-string banjo playing has to be seen to be believed. Levy alternated between harmonica and piano and was excellent on both. Wooten, once again, is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen on the bass with his virtuoso slap technique that demands to be noticed. And I don’t even understand how Futureman’s, aka Roy Wooten’s, drums work. My first reaction to seeing him onstage was “what the hell is that guy playing?” (also, “why the hell is that guy wearing a pirate hat?”) and it took me at least three songs to realize that the thing he had in his hands, apparently invented by him and called a Drumitar, was what he was using to play the drums.
The crowd hung on their every move. Fleck got the biggest cheers for his solos, but Wooten was a close second, and his encore solo, which he capped off by flinging his bass around his body by the strap several times, was epic and got the loudest reaction of the night.
It was a great show. I only knew the band by reputation going in, but came away thoroughly impressed. Still, I can’t help but think that minus a few songs, this could’ve been a set of the year candidate, or at least best of the festival, instead of a very good show.