Reunited Bela Fleck & the Flecktones offer transcendent concert at the Michigan Theater
Hippies, jazzbos, folkies and the just-plain-curious were equally knocked out by the reunited, original quartet, which fused jazz, funk, bluegrass, rock and anything else you can think of into a wholly satisfying, often jaw-dropping performance that showed that its members have all matured during their lengthy hiatus as a band.
Anchored by Fleck, who advances the capabilities of the banjo every time he touches the instrument, the Flecktones mixed classic material from their handful of initial releases together with tunes from their latest release, 2011’s Grammy Award-winning “Rocket Science.”
It’s fitting the reunion tour would come to Ann Arbor, where the original band delivered a clutch of performances at The Ark during the 1990s that helped cement its reputation as a musical tour de force.
“We really like Ann Arbor very, very much,” Fleck said during one of the show’s infrequent between-song chats.
And on Thursday, just as during those long-ago shows, the feeling was very, very mutual.
Monk meets Monroe. Brubeck meets the banjo the temptation to come up with comparative descriptors is hard to avoid. Yet the fact is that Fleck and the Flectones are unclassifiable. Always have been.
On Thursday, songs started out like straight-ahead funk workouts, only to morph and modulate through avant jazz, acid rock and world music, only to resolve back to da funk.
And in bassist Victor Wooten, the Flecktones have the funkiest jazz bassist in the land. Or is the jazziest rock bassist? Slapping, tapping and thumping out the most extraordinary rhythms, Wooten didn’ hit a bad note throughout Thursday’s show. Inventive, yet never intrusive, his playing melded the traditional role of the bass with a new role as a lead instrument.
Wooten shared rhythm-section duties with his brother, Futureman, who split his time between his own Drumitar electronic drumset and traditional percussion, laying down an insistent foundation upon which the arrangements were built, torn down and rebuilt in different formations.
Decades removed from his emergence as a teenaged phenom with the New Grass Revival, Fleck himself has grown into a player of unsurpassed depth and inventiveness. Even surrounded by fellow virtuosi, his brilliance as both a composer and improviser consistently shone through the arrangements.
For all mastery on display, the Flecktones can occasionally lapse into a somewhat brittle precision that threatens the heart of the music. But not with Howard Levy back in the fold. Levy’s harmonica playing lent an earthy authenticity to the performance, and his solo rendition of “Amazing Grace” received the evening’s biggest individual ovation. Meanwhile, his piano playing frequently kicked the music into the avant-jazz cosmos.
On Thursday, the Flecktones, who clearly are enjoying performing together again, didn’t need much prodding. And the audience was the lucky recipient of the band’s inter-stellar musical rocket ride.