Savannah Music Festival review: Bela Fleck & the (original) Flecktones

What’s better than Victor Wooten playing solo bass?

Not much.

Except maybe him playing with banjo master Bela Fleck and the two other original Flecktones: Howard Levy on piano and harmonica, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (Victor’s older brother) on various percussion instruments, most notably his own invention, the drumitar.

Throw in Casey Driessen on the fiddle for a few songs and, well, we’re pretty close to heaven.

Thursday night’s Savannah Music Festival performance at Trustees Theater by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones highlighted the skills of each musician and their ability to form an ensemble that’s even better than the sum of its parts — if that’s even possible.

I’m not really familiar with individual Flecktone songs and I haven’t listened to their newish album Rocket Science, which was released last year and from which some of Thursday’s show was drawn. But that lack of close connection wasn’t a problem at all, as it can be with some performances.

These guys were just all so good that they could have played all night whether or not I recognized the tunes — which often bled together with no introduction and seemed peppered with improvisations.

And in a sense, they did play all night. Including the intermission the show was almost 3 hours long — an incredible opening salvo announcing that the Savannah Music Festival is back with a stellar lineup. “It’s crazy, man,” Fleck said in the very limited talking from the stage. “You guys have one of the best festivals ever.”

The set list included “Bottle Rocket”, “Nemo’s Dream”, “Seresta”, “Sweet Pomegranates”,”Blu-bop”, “Saucer Dudes”, and the occasionally eery “Storm Warning”. “Life in Eleven”, the 2011 Grammy-winner for Best Instrumental Composition written by Fleck and Levy, was richly complicated but so easy to listen to.

“Yee-Haw”, which was named after a phrase used by Sam Bush to refer to small towns when Fleck toured with him as part of New Grass Revival, was a particularly good showcase for the banjo.

Watching Fleck’s banjo solos (I’ve seen him now a few times at the SMF with various other musicians) always just delights me — the sheer virtuosity, the childlike smile, the lack of flashiness, the occasional raising eyebrows.

Levy and Futureman had stunning solos too, but the memory I’ll probably keep forever of the show will be Victor Wooten and that bass. I literally didn’t know a bass could be played in so many ways –he strummed it, hit it, tapped it, plucked it, and for extended riffs he had all eight fingers punching the strings.

And then he started looping some of the bits over each other as he kept going. It was utterly enthralling to hear and to watch. The lighting too was lush and beautiful without being distracting.

The band was making everything so easy that I kept wondering what they might be leaving in the can — and then Futureman sang. I’m pretty sure the song was “Sunset Road”, which seemed to have an R&B backbone to it.

If you get a chance to see these guys, do it — no matter what style of music you usually enjoy.