Elvis Presley's hip gyrations are no longer the salacious and censorable offense they once were. Those moves have become the very embodiment of comfy kitsch, because it's human nature to get used to things with time. But chances are, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones can keep on playing music as long as they want — they've been at it 24 years already — and they'll never seem like your run-of-the-mill band.
During an era when most listeners gravitate toward music with vocals, they've taken the stage as a striking instrumental quartet: Fleck with a pre-war or electric banjo, fingers flitting over mind-bending melodic figures, Victor Wooten slapping the strings of his electric bass and squeezing out ultra-fluid notes, his brother Roy "Futureman" Wooten getting a ticklish, jazzy drum kit attack from what appears to be a kidney-shaped guitar bedazzled with nickels and quarters (officially, the Drumitar) and Howard Levy blowing diatonic harmonica with fiery precision, or playing piano, or both at once.
That's the original lineup, and the one you'll currently see live. After Levy left the group some 17 years ago, saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined up, before moving on to The Dave Matthews Band while the Flecktones were on hiatus. Fleck first assembled the foursome with Levy for a one-off PBS special. The show's artistic director, Dick Van Kleek, more or less told him to do whatever he wanted. Says Fleck, during a rare day off from tour dates, "I liked the idea of finding a group of four people that were all crazy on some level, and presenting that as the band."
That's saying something, considering Fleck was in New Grass Revival at the time, a still influential, rocking and rolling bluegrass outfit that made a hard left from tradition in just about every way possible. Fleck had to get up the gumption to take the leap with the Flecktones. "In the beginning," he says, "it felt like it would be amazing if we made it through a year without going bankrupt, after leaving New Grass Revival, which had very solid footing under it."
Last year music journalist Simon Reynolds stirred up a fuss with his rather pessimistic argument — laid out in Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past — that all anybody is doing in music these days is rehashing the sounds and styles of earlier eras without creating anything genuinely new. It's true, at least, that there are plenty of buzz bands with looks and sounds from the '60s and '70s, or even the '90s. Antithetically, the Flecktones are energized by exploring new territory, putting them in the paradoxical situation of being the long-running band that always does things differently.
"Yeah, it's really a trap when you're successful in a group like that," says Fleck. "When everybody decides to really like you and you're working a lot, it gets harder to keep it fresh. It's always been one of my challenges as the leader to try and make sure everybody's into it and intrigued, making sure that I'm keeping enough new, challenging information coming at everybody, whether it's mine or theirs, so that people don't just become complacent. Because anything can just turn into a gig."
When Levy rejoined the Flecktones, they didn't want to only lean on material from the three albums they'd made with him in the early '90s, so they wrote and recorded an entirely new and invigorated album, Rocket Science, which came out May 2011. "To me," says Fleck, "that was what was exciting about it, not 'Oh, let's get back together and play the old music,' but, 'What can we do now?' "
The Flecktones don't tend to draw the sort of fans that demand the hits and only the hits. From night to night, Fleck sees crowds getting equal enjoyment from old favorites like "Sinister Minister" and new tunes like "Prickly Pair." He says, "We're very fortunate to have an audience that comes for the ride, you know?"
Rocket Science's "Life in Eleven" is a particularly good example of the line the Flecktones walk between novelty and accessibility. They spend the first two minutes of it circling round and round in a very odd time signature: 11/8. Then, without ever leaving it, they drop into a groove with a pretty darn strutting, straight-ahead beat.
"That's the key to the Flecktones' whole trip," says Fleck, "is to do things that are complicated, but find a common-man approach to it that anybody can get, and they might not even know it's in an odd meter."
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