Bela Fleck, an acknowledged master of the banjo, and his dizzyingly talented sidekicks filled the Wiltern LG Theater with such arrestingly textured music for nearly two hours Nov. 22 that it’s hard to pick any one of them as the most outstanding musician onstage. From the opener, “Next,” from this year’s “Ten From Little Worlds” album, on through the finale, “A Moment So Close,” each member displayed a virtuosic touch that was, well, breathtaking.
Take, for instance, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist-drumitarist Future Man. Future Man plays drums with one hand, while the other flails on a distinctly ugly instrument called the drumitar, a misshapen monstrosity that looks as if a homeless person found pieces of a guitar neck and stuck it on a worn-out sickly gray suitcase.
Yet, the rhythms that poured out forced listeners to look closely at the stage to confirm that this was, indeed, no slight of hand. And Wooten’s silky yet funky bass playing — both as support and during several extended solos — never grew heavy-handed. He could have played all night by himself and the audience would have hung with him to the very end.
The ensemble supported each other with smiles and knowing nods that they were locked in tune with each other. Given this kind of latitude, quirky rhythms rained down, as in the song “Poindexter,” which Fleck dedicated to all the nerds in the world. “Sherpa,” a dreamy tune with a thick overtone by Coffin, shifted between reggae, Miles Davis and fat Crusader-like flourishes. “Off the Top” highlighted Fleck’s picking skills via an airy linearity on guitar before switching to the banjo and a furious, breakneck middle and ending with the band.
Fleck was the last band member to take a solo, as he graciously allowed Coffin et al. to display their abundance of talent. Fleck wove through a Mozart snippet and Lennon/McCartney’s immense suite of songs on “Abbey Road” before settling into several funky grooves.
Fleck has brought a huge measure of respect to the vastly underutilized banjo, in essence mixing Lester Flatt, Pat Metheny and Al DiMeola into a seamless fusion package.
Only one down side: Couldn’t they afford a full-time drummer instead of relying on synthesized drum tracks on a number of songs? That left listeners wondering how truly spontaneous and precise the band’s play might have been, rather than knowing that when the synth stopped, that was the real end of a song and set.