music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

December 8, 2018 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski



In the jam band community, the word “diverse” gets thrown around quite a bit. Most jam bands have some level of diversity, but they still have a home base they go back to. Yonder Mountain String Band plays a variety of different bluegrass music, but they do stay within that bluegrass genre. The Dave Matthews Band absolutely sit well within the “alternative/adult contemporary rock” category, despite having a lot of things going on in their music. Most of the electronic and “livetronica” jam bands, like STS9 and The Disco Biscuits don’t stray too far from that music. Even Phish has had hints of bluegrass and jazz, but, for the most part, they fall pretty strongly in the “rock” category. When it comes to diversity, one band stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones have been playing a crazy mix of funk, jazz, blues, country, pop, bluegrass, rock, for 30 years. Béla has been nominated for Grammy’s in more categories than any other musician, having received nominations for Grammys in the categories of jazz, bluegrass, pop, contemporary Christian, gospel, classical, country, and spoken word. The band has won numerous Grammys, and have a strong following from many different musical communities. At a Flecktones show, you’ll find jam band fans, jazz aficionados, bluegrass fans, and any number of music lovers from other areas. They truly cut through barriers and have gained respect across dozens of genres.

The band was formed by four musicians coming from a range of influences and areas. Béla began playing music at a young age, and got his first banjo at the age of 15. He played in a variety of projects throughout the early 80’s, releasing solo albums and albums as a part of the New Grass Revival. Brothers Victor and Roy “Futureman” Wooten were raised in a musical household, with Victor picking up bass at 3 years old and the family forming the Wooten Family Band with the kids. Harmonica player and keyboardist Howard Levy was an innovator on the harmonica and is a composer who has played on over a hundred albums throughout his career.

Fleck brought together in 1988 as a one-off performance for a PBS special. It didn’t take very long to understand that this was a unique blend of talent that simply couldn’t be cast off. Fleck had already been recognized as possibly the premier banjo player in the world. Victor Wooten’s rapid-fire slap technique was utterly unique and unlike anything heard before. Futureman held down the beat not with a drum kit but with his homemade “Drumitar,” a keytar that has been modified to provide drum and percussion samples. Levy added different influences and sounds through both harmonica and piano that helped round out the band’s sound. They quickly began recording and touring, and recorded their first album in 1990.

Their eponymous release was an immediate hit for the Flecktones. Fleck was already well-known among bluegrass fans, but the full band reached far beyond what Fleck was traditionally known for. The album charted on the Contemporary Jazz charts, and received rave reviews. They continued to tour, playing over 200 shows a year, and growing a diverse fanbase. Their second album, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, reached number 1 on the contemporary jazz charts. The second album marked a change for the band, as their self-titled album was written primarily by Fleck while Cosmic Hippo was more of a full-band effort. Their third album, <i.UFO Tofu, continued to show their contemporary jazz chops. The band also continued to expand their instrumentation.. On their first album, they stuck pretty close to their normal instruments, but the band grew to include a variety of banjos, different bass arrangements, and different instruments for Levy to experiment with. They also started to grow their fanbase outside of the jazz genre through performances with a variety of acts, including a spot on the HORDE tour.

After UFO Tofu Levy decided to leave the band due to the strain of touring. Instead of immediately replacing him, the band recorded Three Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, their most inclusive full-band effort to date. Fleck wrote less than half of the songs, with the Wooten brothers, especially Futureman, taking a much bigger chunk of the writing than previously. They continued to be categorized as a “jazz” act, despite moving further and further into other territory with each record. Without Levy on this album, they included guest musicians for the first time, including Bruce Hornsby on piano and Branford Marsalis on saxaphone.

The band took a break from studio recording for the next few years, but not from touring. They released their first live album, Live Art, in 1996, and also won their first Grammy award for the performance of “Sinister Minister’. They continued touring as well as recording solo and with other artists. Fleck drew more attention to the band with his performance on a number of tracks on the Dave Matthews Band album Before These Crowded Streets, exposing DMB fans to his work, and turning many DMB fans into Flecktone fans.

While the band was experiencing greater and greater success, they also wanted to expand their sound. They brought in saxophone player Jeff Coffin to the band for their next album. Left of Cool was a major departure for the Flecktones. Instead of being basically a live studio recording, Left of Cool included significant editing and layering of instruments. They brought in Dave Matthews to sing on a couple of tracks, building on a relationship that would continue for years. They also won another Grammy for the song “Almost 12,” continuing to grow their popular appeal.

Their second full decade of recording proved to be just as fruitful as the first. They released Outbound in 2000, and took home another Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. They followed that up with Live at the Quick, a live album recorded in 2000. In 2003, the band released their most ambitious project to date, the 3-disc album Little Worlds The album was quite a lot for the average fan to take in, but it truly encompassed the creative nature of the Flecktones. In order to keep the album from dragging on, the band used over a dozen guests throughout the album. They also used the album as another opportunity to make inroads with the jam band community by including Derek Trucks as a guest on three tracks.

After over a decade of near-constant recording and touring, the band took 2005 off to work on other projects. The Hidden Land brought the band back to basics, with no special guests and a significantly more organic sound than Little Worlds. Not surprisingly, the album netted the band another Grammy award. More changes hit the band in 2008 when Jeff Coffin began filling in on saxophone for the Dave Matthews Band after the injury of LeRoi Moore. This took Jeff away from the Flecktones, as DMB’s kept a full-time touring and recording schedule. The band still found an opportunity to put together Jingle All the Way, a mix of holiday music with a distinct Flecktones mark.

With Jeff taking on a full-time role with DMB after Moore’s passing, the future of the Flecktones seemed to be up in the air. The band responded to this with a huge announcement, bringing back Howard Levy for a tour and a new album. The tour was a huge success for the band, and fans that had never had a chance to see the original lineup were thrilled to have Levy back into the fold. They released Rocket Science in 2011 as well. Unfortunately the band chose not to continue on with the Flecktones full-throttle. The group announced an indefinite hiatus in June 2012, as each member continued to pursue their other musical projects. While the band certainly left the door open to come back together, they made it clear that it would be at least a few years before a Flecktones reunion. They announced the reconvening of the Flecktones early in 2016, once again with the core 3 members of the band and Levy. Since that time they’ve toured at least a little every year, although the Flecktones have gone from the primary musical focus of the members to something more closely resembling an occasional “family reunion.”

It’s extremely hard to try and categorize or summarize what the Flecktones are all about. I strongly believe that they are potentially the single greatest collection of pure talent that modern music has ever seen. Both Béla Fleck and Victor Wooten are seen by their peers as possibly the most proficient masters of their respective instruments alive today. That is extremely high praise. Futureman is a true musical innovator, creating instruments to fit what he wants to do rather than tether himself to the confines of typical percussion. And both Jeff Coffin and Howard Levy are extremely well respected on their chosen instruments as well.. They’ve pushed the limits of jazz music far beyond typical boundaries, and they’ve created musical paths between genres that simply have never been cut before. While the band hasn’t recorded an album since 2011 we can still hope that there is more music to come from the band. At very least we can enjoy their excellent live shows when they come around.



Electric Forest announces lineup
Electric Forest announced their 2019 lineup this week. The festival, which is back down to one weekend next year, will feature 3 nights of the String Cheese Incident along with artists such as Lettuce, STS9, The Floozies, Twiddle, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, TAUK, Spafford, Ghost Light, and many others.

DelFest announces lineup
DelFest will return to Cumberland, MD from May 23-26. The festival will feature The Del McCoury Band leading the way, along with The Travelin’ McCourys, The String Cheese Incident, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Billy Strings, The Marcus King Band, and many others.

Blue Ox Festival announces lineup
The Blue Ox Festival will take place in Eau Claire, Wi from June 13-15. The festival will feature Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Sam Bush Band, Del McCoury Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, The Dead South, and many others.


Strings & Sol
December 7-11
Puerto Morelos, MX
Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon

December 12-16
Puerto Morelos, MX
The Disco Biscuits, STS9, Umphrey’s McGee, Lotus, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Ghost Light

Winter Wondergrass Vermont
December 14-16
Stratton, VT
Railroad Earth, Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & The Keels, Fruition, Billy Strings, Kitchen Dwellers, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Tropical Throe.down
January 10-14
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
moe., The New Mastersounds, Big Something

Jam in the Sand
January 15-19
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
Dark Star Orchestra, The Wailers, Green Leaf Rustlers

International Incident
January 25-28
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
The String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams

Panic en la Playa Ocho
January 25-29
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Riviera Maya
February 15-17
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Phish in Riviera Maya
February 21-23
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 22-24
Steamboat Springs, CO
Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Billy Strings, The California Honeydrops, Della Mae with Bonnie Paine, Jeff Austin Band, The Shook Twins

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA


Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!