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Review: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Billy Strings Deliver ‘Impossible’ But Rusty Music to a Rain-Weary Red Butte Crowd

Jun 01, 2019 12:54PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, make it a "Fab Five" at Red Butte Garden Ampitheatre, by adding opening act Billy Strings to their jam set. Left-to-right: harmonicist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten, opening act Billy Strings, banjoist Béla Fleck, and drummer/percussionist Roy “Future Man” Wooten. (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

A concert is a two-way activity. 

“Con” meaning “with,” “cert” meaning “arranged by mutual agreement.”

At Friday, May 31’s opening for Red Butte Garden’s 2019 Outdoor Concert Series, Grammy-winning Béla Fleck and the Flecktones did their best, many times making musical brilliance, sometimes seeming a bit rusty, like a band left out in the rain. But Salt Lake’s crowd at the Red Butte Garden Ampitheatre seemed too distracted by looming storms and rain-weary weeks of supposed spring to really dig in, commit to the complex, and appreciate the layered, what some critics have deemed “impossible” musical skills on display Friday, May 31. 

Kicking off the Red Butte season

Celebrating 30 years together, famed bluegrass-fusion band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones kicked off Red Butte’s 2019 summer concert series. Another “fab four,” the band comprises of banjoist Fleck, bass guitarist Victor Wooten, drummer/percussionist Roy “Future Man” Wooten, and harmonicist/pianist Howard Levy.

The band performed with impressive opening act Billy Strings, who usually soloes in smaller venues and joined the band for this performance, before heading off to Colorado for more performing. 

The response to bluegrass/rock/Americana artist Strings was so strong, some seemed to have journeyed to the concert venue to see Strings. When asked, though? Nope. “We’re here to see Béla!

Who is Béla Fleck?

Those are the die-hard Fleckstone fans. People who have admired Fleck and his namesake band for decades.

Who is Béla Fleck? Besides being a Grammy-winning musical genius and the musician having been nominated for more Grammy categories than any other musician, Fleck is an icon who is credited with being, some speculate, the best banjo player in the world. 

Perhaps even more important, Fleck has long been credited with re-imagining what we think of with the four- or five-stringed circular instrument. Through his and the band’s artful blending of bluegrass and funk, Fleck constantly reminds audiences that the banjo is of African origin.

Fleck’s early studies, to current concert

The New York native, who was named after three different composers, was perhaps destined for musical brilliance.

Young Fleck cut his teeth on the banjo, studying the sounds of musicians’ Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ performance of the theme music for the “Beverly Hillbillies” comedy series.

When listening to the band play, the Baby Boomer’s ear will hear the echo of television music from signature shows from multiple decades--“Beverly Hillbillies” (1960s) to “Rockford Files” (1970s) to “Hill Street Blues” (1980s) to “Seinfeld” (1990s). 

All generations, when opening to the complex concept of not just hearing a single, simple music genre, but constant blending of genres, amid stalwart technical consistency to multiple genres—all within a single song.

At Red Butte Ampitheatre, the Flecktones got a bit of a slow start. Their opening number had off moments, and the pace seemed as dreary as the overhead clouds until about two-thirds of the way through the headline band’s performance, when Fleck, perhaps, regained musical mojo in first talking about, then playing “Juno,” a 2013 song he wrote about the birth of his son. (Son Juno Fleck is surely destined to be a banjo aficionado—as Fleck’s wife and Juno Fleck’s mother, Abigail Washburn, is also a banjo player. She and hubby Fleck often play together.)

The art of the impossible

The show had many amazing high points, that it was so disappointing to have—like a game when the Jazz are down 40 points—a significant amount of the crowd bailing so early on, especially when the seemingly threatening weather stayed at bay, beyond just a few, occasional sprinkles.

Standout numbers included an inspired rendition of 1990’s “Sunset Road.” Near-magically, the group transformed Red Butte’s 6,000-capacity ampitheatre to the feeling of an intimate piano bar. If a piano can be “belted out?” it was. The evening’s performance of the tune embodies the band’s fusion manifesto, solidly opening in bluegrass mode, then delightfully straying to Latin, funk, and blues strains. 

Also inspired was the rendition of “Jekyll and Hyde (And Ted And Alice”), rife with Wooten’s techno-speed guitar. For an encore, the “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo”—the 1992 title CD which also featured “Jekyll”—was a lot of interactive fun for the audience, especially those up close.

Fleck acknowledged that the band was “remembering all these tunes, right in front of you (the Red Butte audience)” and had barely played together in a year. 

When he asked the crowd—“Are you with us?” the honest answer? Mainly the diehards of the 30-year old band.


Band A-

Audience C+

Weather D