Expect musical levitation with The Flecktones

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 11:26

Grammy-winning bluegrass-jazz-funk band returns for two nights at Anthology

By George Varga | utsandiego.com

There are a number of joys that come from sharing live musical experiences with friends, acquaintances and relative strangers. For me, one of them is watching their faces light up when, after hearing one of your favorites artists perform for the first time, they suddenly understand why you are so passionate about that artist. (Or, vice versa, when someone introduces me to one of his or her favorites and I have a similar aural epiphany.)

One memorable example was in 1992, when I took classically trained Russian keyboardist Igor Len — then a recent U.S. transplant and an alum of Vladimir Kuzmin & Dinamik, one of the Soviet Union’s top rock acts — to hear Béla Fleck & The Flecktones at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay.

Len, a formidable musical talent who was not easily impressed, practically levitated out of his seat with excitement as the Flecktones soared from one dizzying musical peak to another. It was the same response I had when I heard the Flecktones for the first time in 1991 at the Hollywood Bowl and, a few months later, at San Diego Street Scene.

It was unclear if Len had ever heard a banjo before (let alone one played with Fleck’s masterful command), or a fusion band that draws as much from bluegrass as from jazz and funk. But Len was elated, as was the enthusiastic audience, by the Grammy-winning Flecktones’ seamless ensemble work, mesmerizing songs and bravura solos on instruments both familiar (banjo, electric bass, keyboards) and foreign.

Then and now, the latter category includes: Roy “Future Man” Wooten’s Drumitar (a guitar-synthesizer he converted into a touch-sensitive “drum set,” complete with cymbals, that he plays with his fingers); and Howard Levy’s jaw-dropping ability to play chromatically on a 10-hole C diatonic harmonica (which is like being able to play the black keys on a piano, without the black keys being there, by bending the existing notes on the harmonica to create the sound of the missing notes).

To add to the “wow” factor, Levy could solo simultaneously –and remarkably well — on piano and harmonica.

“We also call (Levy) `The Man with Two Brains,’ ” Fleck told me during a 1992 San Diego Union interview, “because he can play harmonica with one hand and piano with the other. Which hand he uses for which instrument depends on the song and which part of the piano he wants to be playing.”

As for Fleck, his instrument of choice was both familiar and foreign, at least in the early 1990s.

Among his stringed musical arsenal was a Crossfire electric banjo, made by Deering Banjos of Lemon Grove. It featured a banjo neck and head mounted on a guitar-like body equipped with coiled magnetic pickups. It combined the sound and sustain of an electric guitar with the sound of a traditional banjo, allowing Fleck to employ distortion, delay, MIDI and other effects common to electric guitars, but unheard of at the time on banjos.

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones

When: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, March 13 & 14

Where: Anthology, 1337 India St., downtown

Tickets: $19-$99

Phone: (619) 595-0300



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Via utsandiego.com