Music review: Flecktones shine individually and as ensemble

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones’ odd combination of ingredients proved prone to rapid oxidation in Sunda

It’s all about the chemistry, or the physics. The ingredients comprising Bela Fleck & the Flecktones in a sold-out show on Sunday at The Egg were different from those in the last visit by the powerhouse band. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin has left, replaced by Howard Levy, the harmonica player/pianist Coffin had replaced.

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For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.

But, neither combination should have worked, despite big virtuosity at every position Sunday: electric bass, synthesized percussion, piano or harmonica — or both at once — and the banjo, that much-maligned butt of jokes.

However, in the hands of Victor LeMonte Wooten, Futureman, Bela Fleck and Levy, respectively, the Flecktones’ odd combination of ingredients proved prone to rapid oxidation. They caught fire and stayed hot, explosions punctuating the burn.

Levy’s much-heralded return forecast a profound shift, but two unexpected things happened: Everything fit together better than any such relatively new band deserved, and the band introduced a secret weapon just before intermission and again at the end: the percussive violin of Casey Driessen. Just before he jumped in, the spotlight belonged to Levy, who played “This Land Is Your Land” in a one-man, piano-and-harmonica duet.

“Bottle Rocket” from the band’s new album “Rocket Science” set a mood of cheerfulness that held despite accelerating piano-jazz complexity from Levy. “Nemo’s Dream” started quietly but grew wings fast, with abrupt cadence shifts that would cause whiplash in a lesser band. Wooten looped his bass in multiple lines to launch “Sex in a Pan.” And if one Wooten was overwhelming, and he was, imagine four at once. This eased into “Life in Eleven” — more whiplash! — then percussionist Futureman sang the show’s only vocal on “Sunset Road,” soulfully “Flying Saucer Dudes” hit a hip-hop sci-fi groove before the break.

“BluBop” rebounded between bluegrass and bebop with Fleck and Levy tossing riffs back and forth, Wooten and Futureman standing and playing between them. “Seresta” had a Brazilian flavor while “Storm Warning” served up gusty odd beats and harmonica lightning. Futureman long-intro’ed “Sweet Pomegranates,” a full-band blast, before Fleck soloed in “The YeeHaw Factor,” the show’s most bluegrassy tune. The encore of “Sinister Minister” was a hoe-down on fast-forward.

Wonderful balance

Fleck played standard banjo, an electric banjo that sounded like an electric guitar — think middle period Jerry Garcia — and an odd five-string-something that sounded like a mandolin. His name may brand the band, but there was, as usual, a wonderful balance at work in the Flecktones on Sunday. They played blistering fast, but with no hurry and made everything fit. They listened to each other and did deft pitch-and-catch when anybody hit a special-tasty riff. Levy fit the groove as if he hadn’t left the band for years, making things sound jazzier and bluesier than in Coffin’s tenure.

The Flecktones may be the most rhythmically complex and accomplished band on the road, and their melodic and harmonic conceptions are equally advanced. Brilliant individually, they are an explosive ensemble.

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