Show Preview: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Fox Theater, Oakland, June 7

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Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is one of the great survivors of the last 20 years of music. They’ve used the approach of bringing together a huge collective of great musical talents to maximize the great stuff on stage and on the record. They’ve been together since the ’80s, in a range of forms – teams of great players came together, made great music as a band, went their own ways, made great music individually, before coming together again to make 2011’s Rocket Science, the album that topped the Billboard Jazz chart. Now, they’re back at the Fox Theater, over the water in Oakland, this week Friday, the 7thof June.

The Flecktones have a mixture of banjo-driven Americana which presages the banjo explosion of the early 2010s; and like all ideas that lead to trends, there’s a lot of depth and subtlety to their style that has always been about more than just twanging. The show promises to be an education for anyone who thinks foot-stomping hipsterism drained American banjo music of its soul.

Back in 1988, when the band was first formed, it had Bela Fleck on the banjo, Victor Wooten on bass guitar, Roy Wooten on drumitar – a MIDI-driven way of dropping in samples to live acoustic in a way that brings together the digital and the acoustic beautifully, which manages to be more than a gadget and more of an actual instrument – and Howard Levy on the keyboard. The initial quartet’s debut album was a self-titled record, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. That, along with their second album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, received Grammy nominations. UFO TOFU was the third, and the last that they made with their original lineup because Levy’s departure in 1992 shrunk the group down to a trio up until 1997 when saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined the band and brought it back to the quartet it was.

During their brief stint as a trio, the band released their studio album Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and their first ever live album Live Art. Fans of the band had been craving for a record that encapsulated the experience of hearing and watching the Flecktones live, and Live Art was a fitting tribute. Going up a notch as a quartet with Coffin, the band went on to record several other albums, including Left of Cool, Outbound, Little Worlds, The Hidden Land, and Jingle All the Way. There was also another live album recorded. Titled Live at the Quick, this one was also released as a DVD, before a hiatus hit, a break that ended when Levy re-joined to record Rocket Science, including the Grammy-winning instrumental “Life in Eleven”.

This week’s show isn’t a promotional tour for a new release and promises to be a tour of the whole landscape of their creativity and depth over 30 years of playing. Rocket Science had some of the most futuristic and progressive tracks (yes, even on the banjo) of the time, and the Flecktones made it clear that while their reunion may be a nostalgic thing, their music was anything but. It only helped that in the years since Levy first left, each musician had grown in his own right. Their collective musical prowess made their last album one of their finest.

Now, the quartet is touring, and they’re stopping by the Bay Area as well. Get your tickets, head over to the Fox Theater at Oakland and catch them perform live on the 7th of June (you can thank us later).

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones play the Fox Theater Friday, June 07, 2019
Doors: 7:00 pm | Show: 8:00 pm

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF® as a way to showcase what the San Francisco music scene really has to offer.

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