As promised, here is my report from a recent stop on the Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers/Béla Fleck and the Flecktones tour.
Last Friday, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear these two bands, lead by two masters, share a stage. It was hot and pretty humid, but the sun was out and there was no threat of rain. Concertgoers snacked on picnic dinners before the show began.
I’ll leave the traditional review to a professional and offer some reflections of my own. I’ve long been a fan of both groups, so it was a real pleasure to hear both of them live in one night. Of Fleck’s recent pairings– I also saw him with Chick Corea, and he toured with Edgar Meyer before that– this was the most accessible, and in some ways the most natural. For Fleck, rather than returning to highlight some period of his past, he seemed to embrace where he and (importantly) his band had settled. Both the Flecktones and the Noisemakers find themselves comfortable and welcome guests in the house of Jam. These bands feel too “professional,” to be called “jambands,” and there are no eighteen-minute deep-space incursions; rather, they’ve applied a jazz solo format to popular music. Add that to the fact that each bandleader has such a substantial resume he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, and you end up with something that, resting upon a firm foundation of musical integrity, is easy to get into, danceable, and sounds fun and complex.
To get to this point, all Fleck had to do was redefine an instrument a few times. Classical, folk, and jazz (and electric) banjo, Fleck and his top-of-the-line band, the core of which two brothers– bassist extrordinaire Victor Wooten and postmodern (literally and conceptually) percussionist Futureman– comprise, humbly make virtuosity available to all who will listen. Hornsby, pianist and singer, found Top 40 pop success early on, later joined on with the Grateful Dead (and was a critical part of the post-Garcia group The Other Ones), and settled in with his current outfit.
I was happy that both bands played many familiar songs in their sets. Hornsby drew from his 2000 live double-disc collection, Here Come the Noise Makers, ran with some unsolicited requests, and worked his group seamlessly through pop, rock, jazz, classical, New Orleans, and Appalachian folk music. One of the characteristics of the most professional artists is a certain smoothness. Just as the best athletes “make it look easy,” the best musicians don’t ever hint that they’re working, and for Hornsby, pulling from these myriad influences is no forced effort, as evidenced by his long career, as well as more recent collaborations with the likes of post-boppers Jack DeJonette and Christian McBride and country voice-turned bluegrass missionary Ricky Skaggs. For the Flecktones, the return of original member Howard Levy– “the tallest and thinnest Flecktone,” according to Fleck– on piano and harmonica meant a return to earlier compositions and features from the reconstituted band’s latest, Rocket Science.
In addition to hearing fresh versions of familiar tunes from both groups, the collaborations offered some unique and exciting moments. Hornsby played two songs on dulcimer, and Fleck joined him on the second one. Before long, the Noisemakers’ drummer, Sonny Emory, joined the two up front on washboard for a jam that became increasingly free and saw Hornsby drifting back and forth between dulcimer and piano, never missing a note.
The bands returned for two encores, and although they’ve blurred in my mind, I know the following for certain: the first encore featured Fleck and Hornsby alone on Hornsby’s beautiful “Mandolin Rain,” and the second brought everyone back for a joyous collaboration that featured a bass duel between Wooten and the Noisemakers’ happily outmatched J.V. Collier before the combined forces broke into a full, climatic showing of modern jazz’s biggest pop hit, Weather Report’s “Birdland,” before returning to earth to close things out.
The crowd’s demand for a third encore was not met, but all undoubtedly left satisfied.