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Originally published on July 5, 2018.
By Brian Zimmerman
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Theatre Maisonneuve – Place des Arts, July 1
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 1 was exceptional on several fronts. First and foremost, it featured the quartet in its original 1989 iteration, with Fleck on banjo, Howard Levy on harmonica and piano, Victor Wooten on bass guitar and Roy “Futureman” Wooten on Drumitar and drum set. Their appearance was also one of only seven reunion shows the group would play this year. More importantly, the performance was a cause for celebration, as the band was presented with the Miles Davis Award in recognition of its outstanding efforts to “regenerate the jazz idiom.” (It was the first time the award was given to a group rather than an individual artist.) After an opening set by the irrepressibly soulful Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, the Flecktones took the stage for a two-hour concert that had the feel of both a musical summit and family gathering. These four musicians are acknowledged masters of their respective instruments — arguably the best in the world — and their technical expertise empowers them with an almost unlimited means of expression. What they say through their music is both technically dazzling and staggeringly beautiful.
Their performance bore that point out in full, featuring songs from across the Flecktones’ canon — spanning from “Mars Needs More Women,” from the group’s 1989 self-titled debut, all the way to “Juno,” which Fleck wrote five years ago to commemorate the birth of his son. The music provided all the necessary fireworks: Levy’s remarkable “split-mouth” harmonica chord voicings, Wooten’s rapid-fire slap base triplets, Futureman’s technologically marvelous drum patterns and Fleck’s impossibly fast banjo rolls. But it also included moments of levity and nostalgia, such as when Wooten and Levy reminisced about the CoolWhip topping on a particularly tasty dessert at a venue in North Carolina (which, incidentally, gave name to the Flecktones song “Sex in a Pan”). Another endearing moment came after an impassioned duet between Levy and Fleck on “Hurricane Camille,” when the two musicians met at the stage center to enjoy a heartfelt fistbump.
The group closed with what is perhaps their most famous song, “Sinister Minister,” also from their debut album. It left the audience wanting much more, and the musicians returned for two encores that once again bookended their astounding discography: “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” from their Grammy-nominated sophomore album, and a brand new tune, “Vertigo,” which has yet to be recorded.
Featured photo: Benoit Rousseau