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Acoustic Alchemy

Taking the banjo to new heights.


Fleck's crossover breakthrough success is rooted in a similar balance of seemingly incompatible elements. He plays sophisticated music on a folk instrument, casually blends oil-and-water genres, weighs tradition against innovation and sets commercial novelty against artistic ambition.

Merely playing Bach or bebop on a banjo isn't enough. "Some people will clap you on the back for doing it at all," Fleck says, "but I have the responsibility to do it well. I want it to be for real, to play music that moves, that sounds like it belongs."

Born in New York City and named for Romanian composer Bela Bartok, Fleck's path was set at the age of 15 when he heard Flat & Scruggs play the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme. "I loved the sound of the instrument," he says, "the speed and complexity, and the soulful qualities."

It was an affinity not widely shared in mid-'70s New York. "Playing the banjo was the reverse of cool," he recalls. "I was kind of ostracized." After graduating from the High School of Music and Art, he built a reputation as a brilliant player in a variety of bands, notably the electric neo-traditionalist New Grass Revival.

A 1998 invitation to put together an all-banjo show for "The Lonesome Pine Special" led to the formation of his signature band The Flecktones. "I put together a jazz combo to do five songs at the end of the show," he recalls. "With Victor Wooten on bass and his brother Future Man [Roy Wooten] on a crazy drum kit that looked like a guitar. It's a great rhythm section."

Both are still with the band, along with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who replaced original member Howard Levy in 1992. Longevity pays dividends. "We really focus on listening," Fleck says. "We know how to accent, how to encourage. We breathe together. Now we're not so surprised when someone does something really wonderful that we mess up."

The band builds in strategies to keep things fresh. In the first half-dozen concerts of their current "Acoustic Planet" tour, they didn't repeat a single song, not even in encores. "Sometimes you have to trick yourself into being spontaneous," Fleck says. "It's like a conversation with someone you talk to everyday. It's easy to repeat yourself, but throw in a free association and it can take off in a whole new direction."

There is a lot of improvisation in a Flecktones performance, moderated with canny discipline. "We have the freedom to play extended solos," Fleck says, "but have emergency hatches set up — composed stuff that we can go to if things aren't going well."

The Acoustic Planet performances are communal affairs. They also feature the eclectic Keller Williams and the bluegrass/jam-tinged Yonder Mountain String Band, but the lines between opener and headliner are blurred. "There's no set break," says Fleck. "We all set up at the same time, and the show moves seamlessly from one band to the other. It ends with a significant encore, three to five songs."

The Innsbrook performance will be the last chance for Richmonders to see the Flecktones for a while. After the tour, the band is going on hiatus to pursue individual projects. After exploring jazz, classical and bluegrass — with side excursions into hip-hop and Central Asian throat singing — nothing is off limits.

"All I need," Fleck says, "is an audience that's curious to see where I'm going next." S

The Acoustic Planet Tour featuring Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Keller Williams and Yonder Mountain String Band comes to the Innsbrook Pavilion Sept. 1. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.; show begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, at Plan 9, Market Café Innsbrook, through 794-6700 or, or $25 at the door.