Fall is in the air this Friday, September 24, 2021 evening outside Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre as music lovers line up for a concert by banjo legend Béla Fleck.
Fleck, 60, was born in New York City. Named after the Hungarian composer Béla Bartok, Fleck was drawn to the banjo as a child after hearing Earl Scruggs play the The Beverly Hillbillies theme song on television and “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weissberg on the radio. At the age of 15, he received his first banjo from his grandfather. After high school, he moved to Boston where he became a member of the group, Tasty Licks, and recorded two albums. In 1979, he recorded his debut solo album, Crossing the Tracks, which was chosen Best Overall Album by the readers of Frets magazine.
In 1981, Fleck joined New Grass Revival, a group he played with for nine years. During that time, he recorded his second solo effort, Drive, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. In 1988, he started his own band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with bassist Victor Wooten. They recorded numerous albums including Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, which reached #1 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.
Fleck also worked with musicians including Doc Watson and Dave Matthews. He recorded Perpetual Motion — a double Grammy winner which featured guitarist John Williams and violinist Joshua Bell — in addition to producing Song of the Traveling Daughter, the debut solo album by his wife, Abigail Washburn.
Fleck’s latest album, My Bluegrass Heart, was released in September, 2021 and features collaborations with such world-class musicians as mandolinists David Grisman and Sierra Hull, bassists Edgar Mayer and Mark Schatz, violinists Michael Cleveland and Stuart Duncan, and guitarists Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton.
Before tonight’s show, we chat with several music lovers outside McCarter Theatre about this evening’s performance, the venue’s first of the 2021 season. Reveals David from Bensalem, PA, “This is our first indoor show since the pandemic and we’re looking for entertainment!” His wife, Joy, explains, “We did some local outdoor concerts, but we have a different set of expectations for indoor events. I’m so glad McCarter is requiring vaccinations and masks tonight.”
David agrees, adding, “We usually come to McCarter a few times each year. I’m sure Béla Fleck is going to wow us as always tonight. We’ve seen him with The Flecktones, with Chick Corea, and with Edgar Meyer, and I know the group he has behind him tonight is phenomenal.” Adds Joy, “Plus Sierra Hull is playing mandolin with Béla this evening. We’ve seen her before, too, and I know her fans will be very excited to see her performing here tonight.”
Peter from Franklin Township declares, “This is our first show back, and we’re psyched! We’re regulars here at McCarter. We were sad when the theater season was cancelled last year. We donated our tickets back to the theater and we’ve been trying to continue to support the artists — we’ve already got tickets to see David Sedaris on October 12 and mandolinist Chris Thile on October 23.”
“Chris Thile is just fabulous,” continues Peter’s wife, Marsha, “and we also love to go to the dance programs here. We saw Béla Fleck here three years ago, and it’s so great to be able to hear live music again tonight,” to which Peter responds by joking, “I’m getting tired of listening to the stereo!”
The line outside McCarter Theatre moves quickly as audience members show their proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and picture ID to enter the historic venue. Once inside, although the vast majority of the patrons tonight appear to be older, there are also young adults and even preteens in the audience; for instance, one young man sits with his skateboard by his side whereas another holds a bicycle helmet.
Microphones and banjos decorate the stage as McCarter’s artistic director, Sarah Rasmussen, thanks tonight’s audience for coming and welcomes everyone back to live performances. Managing director Mike Rosenberg joins Rasmusson onstage to take a selfie with Rasmussen and the entire audience behind him before reviewing the rules of the venue: “1. Keep your mask on,” “2. Turn off your phone,” and “3. Know your emergency exits,” before Rasmusson declares, “Take a break from your devices to enjoy live music!”
Béla Fleck enters to cheers and applause backed by Sierra Hull on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Michael Cleveland on fiddle.
The group opens with “Vertigo,” the first track from Fleck’s latest recording, My Bluegrass Heart. Sounding crisp and clear thanks to the venue’s excellent acoustics and top-notch sound system, Fleck and Co. begin by playing slow notes before launching into a jaunty romp. Michael Cleveland’s fiddle picks and bows, taking off like a train as the other musicians pick in sync behind him with perfect rhythm. With several musicians taking a turn in the spotlight, the twang of Fleck’s banjo, Sutton’s guitar, and Hull’s mandolin are supported by Mark Schatz’s pulsing bass and the long legato lines of Cleveland’s violin.
At the conclusion, cheers and extended applause from the thrilled audience inspire several of the band members to happily jump up and down.
Continuing the night with a series of selections from My Bluegrass Heart, Sutton’s guitar and Hull’s mandolin open “Hug Point” before Cleveland’s fiddle and Schatz’s bass each add their voices to the countrified mix. Toes tap onstage as well as in the audience before Fleck switches banjos and Justin Moses joins the ensemble on dobro for “Round Rock.” On this driving number, Michael Cleveland plucks and bows rhythmically before he changes to straight bowing as he makes his fiddle whine like a train. Fleck takes over the lead and the theater comes alive as each subsequent player is featured. Fingers fly as heads bop, toes tap, and themes come and go, melodies moving and winding until they all gently end together.
Justin Moses begins “The Old North Woods” sliding on the neck of the dobro before moving to the opposite side of the stage to play fiddle on this country two-step. Moses’ and Cleveland’s fiddles play in sync as Fleck plucks out a twangy solo. The harmony fiddles are echoed by mandolin, banjo, and guitar to a fade-out ending, after which an audience member shouts out, “Unbelievable!”
Sierra Hall counts off the next number, “Slippery Eel,” an uptempo bluegrass ditty on which the tempo is so fast it’s practically impossible to hear every note. With changing tempos and meters, the band’s aural jambalaya brings energetic applause from the crowd multiple times.
At the conclusion, Fleck takes to the mic to say, “That’s pretty much what it’s gonna be like!” asking, “Isn’t it great to be in a room together again exploring the bluegrass cosmos?” Fleck introduces each of his band members before he and the group continue with the plunky “Our Little Secret,” a slower tune with a “Hotel California”-type chord progression. Hull’s mandolin, Sutton’s guitar, and Fleck’s banjo strum and pick on the introspective piece. Moses’ dobro slides in as Cleveland’s violin bows sad and slow lines to this haunting tune which features twists and turns of melody and an air of mystery.
Moses switches over to fiddle and he and Cleveland start off “Hunter’s Moon.” Schatz plucks his bass as Fleck, Sutton, and Hull strum on banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Repeated patterns drive this circular and moody song along where the two fiddles blend together and the other strings play a complimenting line which creates a patchwork of sound that dances and swirls into a quilt of comfort for the music lovers in the crowd.
Fleck exclaims, “We’re gonna get Justin on banjo — because more banjo is never enough!” as the group concludes Act I with the jaunty “Boulderdash.” Looking effortless as they dash nimbly on this lively tune, Michael Cleveland plays a virtuosic fiddle solo, Hull picks high on the neck of her mandolin, Fleck’s fingers fly as he picks up and down the banjo, and the audience is treated to a pair of dueling banjos which elicits excited cheers, whistles, and applause.
During intermission, we chat with several members of the audience who share their thoughts on the performance thus far. Insists Nickolai, 14, from Princeton, “This is the best thing ever! I’ve listened to Béla Fleck’s new album, My Bluegrass Heart, a bunch of times, and to see this group of musicians live is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ”
Continues Nicolai — who has played banjo for nine years and has even attended banjo camp with Béla Fleck — “I chose to play the banjo because it looks cool and because it sounds really cool.” According to Nickolai, “Béla Fleck is the best banjo player there is,” and Nicolai also gives high marks to Fleck’s supporting cast stating, “Mark Schatz is killing it on bass, Sierra Hull is the best of the best on mandolin, Bryon Sutton is so cool on guitar, Michael Cleveland is the best on fiddle, and Justin Moses is just insane on all the instruments he plays!”
Richard from Rocky Hill agrees, recalling, “I was just remembering that in the Fall of 1965 — 56 years ago — I was here at McCarter Theatre listening to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs at a midnight show.” Noting, “McCarter Theatre has always been bluegrass friendly,” Richard, an author and music journalist, continues, “To think that bluegrass would progress this far is wonderful. I’ve seen it all. These hot players tonight are building on what’s happened before — they’re all wonderful players and they revere all of the great bluegrass musicians who’ve come before them.”
Exclaims Eric from New York City, “This is my 23rd Béla Fleck concert! Once, I even went to Ireland to see him, but this is my favorite show yet — I’ve been waiting for him for a long time to do a bluegrass tour,” before concluding, “In my opinion, as a musician, he just amplifies and clarifies everything around him.”
Act II continues with more selections from My Bluegrass Heart including the meditative “Psalm 136,” a mandolin and banjo duet featuring Sierra Hull and Béla Fleck.
Played softly and sweetly — almost like a lullaby, but with rhythmic cascading lines which channel Chick Corea’s “Spain” — the piece ends with the pair giving each other a friendly shoulder bump.
Other highlights of the set include “Charm School,” where Fleck explains, “In charm school you are trained to behave.” Likening his story to that of one’s pet canine, Fleck remarks, “This one has us behaving — and us getting up on the couch, too, where there may be a puddle at the end.” Starting smoothly on this countrified yet moody tune but soon building to a writhing mass of sound and vibration, the piece’s offbeat and dissonant interlude features sliding sounds, bending strings, and complex rhythms before segueing back to the original melody and eliciting cheers and whistles from the crowd.
Fleck exclaims, “No set is complete without a barnyard song!” at which point the group launches into “Us Chickens.” This rhythmic, toe-tapping, sashaying number struts across the stage and out into the theater causing heads to bob chicken-style in agreement with the musicians before ending in a cacophony of sound.
“Strider” has Fleck playing his banjo by turning the tuning pegs with a special heart-shaped tuner. Sounding like a sitar, the sound bends and waves with Cleveland’s violin, the bowing of Schatz’s bass, Hull’s strumming mandolin, and Sutton’s guitar until the tune takes on a new vibe — funky and driving with fast runs — before turning to a more traditional bluegrass sound, plucky and happy-go-lucky and featuring a driving Sierra Hull mandolin solo.
Fleck announces that guitarist Bryan Sutton “missed the rehearsal, so I’ll just look at him when it’s his time to play or sing” on “Hunky Dory.” On this medley of fiddle tunes, Fleck plays the cello banjo — a large banjo with a deep sound — as Mark Schatz dispenses with his bass and clog dances on a wooden board as Sutton waits for Fleck’s signal to play. Moses, Hull, and Fleck each get a chance to shine on their respective instruments — dobro, mandolin, and banjo — as Sutton continues to watch, before Schatz does a hambone-style clapping, snapping, and mouth-popping performance to Béla’s banjo and Cleveland’s fiddle. Sutton continues to wait his turn as Béla solos low and funky along to Schatz’s bass accompaniment on this performance that comically concludes with Sutton playing just a few notes at the end.
The gorgeous sound of Sutton’s acoustic guitar introduces “(Revenge of the) Tentacle Dragon,” an intriguing composition with a lively spirit. Featuring a quirky melody and a rock music-like interlude, Fleck defies logic by playing impossible licks as the piece alternates between emotions, eliciting cheers and applause from the crowd.
Fleck declares, “It’s been a pleasure to play for you! We appreciate all you did to come to the show tonight,” before he and his musical partners conclude tonight’s performance with a lively rendition of “Wheel’s Up.” Lights gleam off of the musicians’ silver finger picks as well as their instruments on this fast-paced bluegrass number which has the entire audience on its feet.
The group leaves the stage but soon returns as Fleck explains, “This is fun music to play. This next song is from a band I was in from 1981 to 1990 called New Grass Revival. This is the song we used to start our sets with.” For their first encore, Fleck and Co. play the upbeat and rhythmic “When the Storm is Over,” a piece which features three-part vocal harmonies by Hull, Sutton, and Moses.
Before the ensemble’s second encore, Mark Schatz takes center stage sans bass to announce, “Béla asked me to sing a song I wrote a couple of months after the pandemic hit. It’s about loss and the hope that we can get through this together. It has a repeating refrain. We encourage you to join in.” Here, all six musicians stand together around a single mic for an a cappella vocal rendition of “Another Day.” This moving song has the audience singing along on the “All God’s children gonna find a way” refrain and serves as a somber, respectful, and unifying way to end tonight’s first concert at McCarter Theatre since the pandemic.
As we make our way outside, we chat with several music lovers in the audience who share their thoughts on tonight’s concert. Comments Carol from New Hope, PA, “I felt very comfortable in the theater tonight. I was comfortable showing my vaccination card, and everything went very smoothly,” before adding, “and Béla Fleck was amazing! His musicians are just awesome — Sierra Hull is amazing on mandolin, and Michael Cleveland is fantastic on violin. Plus I love how Béla brought everybody together at the end. It was really nice — just perfect, really.”
John from Nazareth, PA agrees, adding, “This is top-tier music and the level of precision on stage tonight was unbelievable. There’s nothing else around like this type of performance — it’s unmatched — so I’m glad I didn’t pass up an opportunity to see these musicians perform here live tonight.”
Chad from Allentown concurs, adding, “And the acoustics were great, too — it’s nice to hear a sound system reinforce the raw talent without effects.” Continuing, “I’ve been to some recent outside concerts with more freedoms and less constraints,” Chad explains, “This was a classic indoor concert with an older audience, so I didn’t mind wearing a mask because I really wanted to see the show.”
Adding, “The musicianship tonight was just effortless — the way the performers could relax into playing that fast was impressive,” Chad concludes by stating, “Overall, the power of music that these artists brought to the stage tonight was just awe-inspiring!”
To learn more about Bela Fleck, please go to belafleck.com. To learn more about great upcoming performances at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre — including Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara on November 13, Rosanne Cash on December 3, singer/songwriter/guitarist Keb’ Mo’ on February 7, 2022, and Shawn Colvin on February 26, 2022 — please click on mccarter.org.
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