Jeff Coffin made a terrific Flecktone. For nearly 20 years, the saxophonist filled the spot left behind when original member Howard Levy quit in 1992.
Levy plays the harmonica and the piano. When Coffin joined the Dave Matthews Band as a full-time member last year, Bela Fleck reached out to Levy to rekindle their collaborative efforts.
That notion has proved wildly successful. Watching and hearing Fleck, Levy, bassist Victor Wooten, and percussionist Futureman standing in a line across the Gaillard’s stage on Sunday night was akin to witnessing a super-group. Each musician is among the best in the world at what they do.
Rejoining the group after 20 years, Levy aptly kept pace with the frantic jazz outbursts of Fleck and Wooten. Drawing seemingly impossible notes and sounds from his harmonicas, Levy handily switched between his harps and the grand piano, often several times in one song. Sometimes he played both simultaneously — his dual talents were akin to adding a fifth member of the band. When he accidently dropped a harmonica during one song, he sang his part until he could readjust the harp in his hands.
In a very pleasant surprise, the Flecktones did, in fact, include a real, live fifth member at the Gaillard. Violinist Casey Driessen appears on the band’s new disc, Rocket Science, and made the trip to Charleston with the group, performing on several songs. His fiddle interplay with Fleck provided yet another element of beauty and awe to the performance.
From their first moments, and within each song, the band takes turns highlighting the individual talents of their members. Virtuosity is so pervasive that it’s actually more efficient to leave your dropped jaw on the ground and simply wait to pick it up until the band stops playing. One nitpicky note in that regard: the thunderous applause that followed every individual display of musical mastery drowned out the musical transitions to the more subtle parts of songs or another member’s turn to solo. An admonishment to “please hold applause until the end of the song” might be a worthwhile consideration should Spoleto ever bring the group back.
The Gaillard’s spacious ceiling and seating provided excellent acoustics and an ambiance of grandeur for the show, with silky blue and red lighting that elegantly framed the band in front of the stage’s massive curtain. During one song, with vocals from Futureman, the lights projected his giant shadow onto the wall of the auditorium, made highly entertaining by the silhouette of the musician’s pirate regalia he wore on stage, including a wide-brimmed hat.
Victor Wooten’s dress was noteworthy as well, donning a purple, lime green, and yellow shirt of geometric shapes that appeared to be a holdover from the wardrobe of the original Flecktones in the late ’80s.
Whether they were getting downright funky or playing an odd Ukrainian rhythm, the Flecktones play impossibly intricate music with poise and apparent ease. They’re clearly willing to do their homework, locking in complicated changes and tempo transitions until they’re air-tight. That allows them to confidently step outside of the prearranged structure, like when Wooten starts violently tapping and slapping away at his bass, or Fleck conducts an absolute jazz freak-out on the banjo’s neck.
Introducing the band, Fleck thanked Wooten “for being a badass,” and said he’d thank Futureman, “if [he] could figure out what he’s doing over there.” Futureman then thanked Fleck for “single-handedly getting rid of banjo jokes.”
And really, they’re not kidding. Fleck is a musical giant and an internationally renowned master of his instrument. Wooten is too. Futureman keeps bafflingly creative rhythm on an instrument, the Drumitar, that he invented himself. Howard Levy is simply a genius, with amazingly fast piano fingers to boot.
By going back to their roots, the Flecktones are at a pinnacle. It’s a band of phenoms, joined by a fateful sonic chemistry.
For Spoleto, their seventh show since reuniting, they were on. Full flame, pushed to the brink, all-the-way on.