Bluegrass it ain’t. Despite the twang of strings and the whine of a harmonica, banjo-picking Bela Fleck and his trio, the Flecktones, come up with something more urban than country, more hip than hayseed. Their music is what the Mahavishnu Orchestra might have sounded like if it had been led by Earl Scruggs rather than John McLaughlin.
The group’s long show Monday at the Roxy, consisting mainly of Fleck originals pulled from his latest Warner Bros. recording, fused a number of influences and technologies with some solid musicianship into what aficionados call “new grass.” Fleck puts the emphasis on the “new.”
Each band member contributed some kind of innovation, even if some were more technological than musical. Fleck, who also played acoustic five-string during the show, opened on a banjo whose familiar circular soundtable was encased in a Fender-style electric guitar body. Even percussionist Roy Wooten, sans traps, played a “Drumitar,” a drum machine with large pastel buttons that has a neck like a guitar.
But there was also invention of the musical sort. By bending notes with pin-point precision, harmonica-man Howard Levy, who often worked his mouth organ with one hand while playing electric keyboard with the other, pulled the full chromatic scale from his simple blues harp. Bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten (Roy’s brother) has adapted the two-handed “tap” technique of guitarist Stanley Jordan to his instrument, fingering the neck of his bass as if it were a keyboard. During an unaccompanied solo he played the melody of “Chopsticks” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in the upper register while simultaneously providing his own bass line.
Fleck showed some slick chording during his own “Sunset Road,” and put in some appropriately stormy dissonance during an uptempo “Hurricane Camille.” His improvisations, with bent notes and searing high-end, owed as much to Jimi Hendrix as to Scruggs. But he also demonstrated some stylish, straight-ahead picking.
Missing from the performance was the rhythmic crispness that a real drum kit might have supplied. Though percussionist Wooten provided plenty of drive in the manner of Billy Cobham or Alphonse Mouzon, his electronic beat seemed a bit muddy compared to the real thing.