Bela Fleck:
The Bluegrass Sessions
,
at the Whitaker Center,
Harrisburg, PA
(19 October 1999)

Bela Fleck and a bluegrass supergroup whipped into Harrisburg last night and delighted a sold-out house with two and a half hours of hot picking and joyful music. The band may have come as a shock to those used to seeing Bela with his Flecktones configuration, but was expected by those familiar with his new album, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Volume 2, a title he charmingly referred to as "cumbersome."

The band included Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Bryan Sutton on guitar, with Bela, of course, on traditional acoustic banjo (the purple electric one was nowhere in sight). These gents made gorgeous music together, with the lion's share coming from the new CD, including "When Joy Kills Sorrow," "Polka on the Banjo," "The Over Grown Waltz" and more whose names I can't recall. Who takes notes when you can watch these guys? There were also tunes from Bela's other albums, as well as songs by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton.

Among the highlights were a few duet and trio configurations. Bush and Douglas performed a great medley of Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" and Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues," while Stuart Duncan and Bela followed up with a more traditional fiddle/banjo duet that became a trio when they were joined by Mark Schatz, who proceeded to slay the assembled multitudes with a marvelous clog/buck/whatever dance, and a jaw-dropping display of that thing where you whap different parts of your body with your hands in rhythm, while also making popping noises with your hand on your mouth.

To call it a bluegrass concert, however, would not be quite correct. Though the instrumentation was classic bluegrass and a few bluegrass standards were performed to great effect (my favorite being the old Don Reno/Red Smiley hit, "I Know You're Married, But I Love You Still") most of the tunes were harmonically challenging riffs that lent themselves well to extended improvisations, and this is what separated the jazzmen from the bluegrass boys.

All of these performers play bluegrass flawlessly, but the genre is finite, whereas jazz is not. Don't get me wrong -- I love both deeply -- but when it comes to jazz, or, as it seems to be called when played by string instruments, "new acoustic music," a few of these players are just a bit lacking. Bela isn't one of them. His solos are constant marvels of misdirection and surprise, while managing to still preserve the harmonic progressions. In short, he rocks. So does Jerry Douglas, who turns the dobro into something as unexpected as Bela's transformation of the banjo. And speaking of transformations, Douglas ("The Artist Formerly Known As Flux") looked just great, losing a lot of weight and hair length since I saw him last. His playing is constantly enlightening, always interesting to listen to.

Stuart Duncan is the consummate bluegrass fiddler, and I have heard him do some terrific jamming, but he seemed curiously subdued last night, less adventurous than I had expected. Bryan Sutton, who has played with Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, was, rumor had it, a replacement for an injured Tony Rice, the guitarist on the album. He was a real crowd pleaser, but his solos, fine as they were, were bluegrass all the way. Mark Schatz plays great bass, but, as always, the bass player gets few chances to shine, and his solos were exciting, though fairly traditional.

Sam Bush was surprisingly the performer I ultimately enjoyed least. I had never seen him live before, though I've enjoyed his albums, both solo and as sideman, and have seen him on TV and videos, but I was unprepared for the viewing exhaustion that his constant movement, a Bush trademark, would cause. At first I loved his bobbing motion, created by his intensity about whatever he plays or sings, but after a while it became distracting during other players' solos, and by the evening's end, I was thinking that a hearty dose of ritalin might work wonders. There's no denying the man has major chops, and although his lead singing lacked variety, his speed on the mandolin makes you wonder why he doesn't have carpal tunnel syndrome by now. Still, I found a lack of sustained imagination in his often lengthy solos, and by the end of the evening his antics were wearing thin.

If anything, the evening was a mite too long, with some of the music too similar to what had come before. The sound of acoustic string music has a sameness after a while that begs for a strong, clear solo voice, such as Jeff Coffin's woodwinds supply with the current Flecktones. Though the crowd was wildly enthusiastic from opening to close, you could hear attention spans start to fade as the minority of morons in the audience sought to amuse themselves during the second half by shouting "Go, Bela!" during a guitar solo, or "Yeah -- DOBRO!" at other inauspicious times, no doubt excited at having remembered the name of the instrument. Others whistled loudly just before the end of soft ballads, and one young lady danced down the aisle only to discover that no one else was joining in and slunk ignominiously back to her seat. Then there were the folks who tried to slap their body parts in rhythm with Schatz (lotsa luck), and the blonde charmer who stood up at the edge of a front box, and moved in what she no doubt considered a seductive manner until she either got bored or someone told her to sit the hell down. Yeah, honey, like the band is going to tell their roadie to find that groovy dancin' chick and bring her backstage afterward. There were a surprising number of these IQ-challenged offspring of cousins, their rudeness made more apparent by the superb acoustics of the Whitaker Center, in which even a whisper from the back row is audible to much of the house. Perhaps the fact that spirits are offered before the show and during intermission only loosens these sad cases up more. But hell, I remember my first beer....

Despite the reservations and the distractions of some of the crowd offstage and the ebullient Mr. Bush onstage (Bela affectionately but accurately referred to him as "the Energizer Bunny,") it was a great night of music. If this aggregation comes to your town, make sure you see them. It was a delight to see Bela back with some of his old bandmates, and once again in a bluegrass setting. Frankly, I prefer him with the Flecktones, where he's less encumbered by tradition, but this is a happy change of pace, and I'm sure a welcome chance for him to return to his roots. I suggest you join him.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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