B--A--N--J--O : There Was a Player Who Strummed Into Space and Bela Was His Name-Oh

Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

Ah, the banjo. Pie pan on a stick. Emblem of rural quaintness. Rolls along at a wagon wheel gait, till you can almost see the dust kicking up underfoot.

Stephen Foster immortalized it in “Oh! Susanna” as the thing you carry on your knee when you’re coming from Alabama. What else do you need to know?

Well, the instrument that started off clomping along in Foster’s rustic 19th-Century world picked up a quicker tempo with bluegrass burners like Earl Scruggs, but it remained decidedly tied to the land. Until Bela Fleck came along to help launch the banjo into space.

Maybe Fleck was immune to banjo-on-my-knee notions about his instrument because he grew up in Manhattan. In any case, he has taken his early bluegrass influences in directions that neither Scruggs not Stephen Foster could have contemplated.


Fleck, 32, has been rated an innovative player of jaw-dropping skill since 1981, when he joined New Grass Revival. The Nashville-based band expanded the boundaries of bluegrass by making it electric and eclectic and playing with tremendous virtuosity. Sam Bush (mandolin), Pat Flynn (guitar) and John Cowan (bass and vocals) were excellent, but Fleck was the member who seemed keenest on cutting through convention. His solo spots during New Grass shows were genre-hopping fusions of Celtic, rock and jazz sounds.

With the breakup of New Grass Revival two years ago, Fleck launched his own band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The idea of taking the banjo into space became explicit: Both of the Flecktones’ albums feature orbiting banjos on the cover.

The jazz-rock fusion boom of the early ‘70s clearly hit home with Fleck as deeply as his bluegrass influences. The Flecktones’ current album, “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” opens with a song, “Blu-Bop,” that has the controlled, racing mania of vintage Mahavishnu Orchestra. That’s Fleck on electric banjo, filling the John McLaughlin role.

“Flying Saucer Dude” (these guys really are interested in space) sounds like the Pat Metheny Group with its glistening, spacious sound. Ironically, the title track’ is actually one of the earthiest, with a grounding in old New Orleans jazz. It’s Fleck’s way of tipping his hat to an older jazz genre in which banjos did play an important function. Over the course of the “Hippo” album, the Flecktones also essay a traditional Irish folk song, “Star of the County Down”; a spirited rock ‘n’ roll number, “Turtle Rock”; a jazzy take on the Beatles’ “Michelle,” and a surprisingly soulful reading of “The Star Spangled Banner.”


Fleck’s banjo innovations aren’t the band’s only surprise. Howard Levy plays a haunting, disembodied-sounding harmonica far removed from gritty blues convention (he also doubles on keyboards). Victor Lemonte Wooten brings in an element of funk on bass. The most space-age element of all is the SynthAxe Drumitar played by Roy “Future Man” Wooten. Resembling Buck Rogers’ idea of a guitar, it produces all the sounds normally associated with a drum kit.

Needless to say, Stephen Foster wouldn’t recognize it, either.

Who: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

When: Sunday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. With Electric Tribe.


Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal: $18.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.