Jeff Coffin, Howard Levy Jam with Flecktones at Red Rocks

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Howard Levy (left), Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin, Abigail Washburn, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Roy “Future Man” Wooten onstage at Red Rocks.

(Photo: Jon Solomon)

When mandolinist Sam Bush had to bow out of Béla Fleck’s two-hour inaugural Friends and Family show at Red Rocks on May 30 after recovering from surgery, Fleck recruited saxophonist Jeff Coffin to fill in on an epic bill that also included the original lineup of the Flecktones, the Colorado Symphony, singer and banjoist Abigail Washburn (Fleck’s wife) and resonator guitarist Jerry Douglas.

The show marked the first time in the Flecktones’ three-decade-long history that Coffin, who left the Flecktones after a 13-year stint to be a full-time member of the Dave Matthews Band in 2010, and original Flecktones harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy were part of the same lineup. After the Colorado Symphony opened the first set with the overture to Candide, everyone on the bill went into a spirited version of the Flecktones’ 1998 song “Big Country.” It was a magnificent first song to see Coffin and Levy share the stage with the Flecktones, which also includes bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Roy “Future Man” Wooten.

Fleck said he had been waiting a long time to get Coffin and Levy on stage together, but scheduling was tricky due to Coffin’s busy touring schedule with Matthews. Since Coffin is hitting the road again this month with the Charlottesville, Virginia-bred band, Fleck said the saxophonist won’t be available to sit in on another gig during the Flecktones’ 30th anniversary tour, which runs through early July (with more dates being announced later this year).

In addition to “Big Country,” Coffin and Levy shared the stage on the reggae-tinged “Lochs Of Dead,” which morphed into Celtic sections a few times with Coffin trading fours with Fleck, Douglas and Levy, as well as “Stomping Grounds,” which included a snippet of the Surfaris’ “Wipeout,” “Sunset Road” and the Grammy-winning tune “The Sinister Minister.” (The latter two tunes appeared on the band’s 1990 eponymous debut.)

During the first set, the original quartet with Levy dug into a fiery rendition of “Life In Eleven,” while the quartet with Coffin (on alto and tenor saxophones) played on a section of “Throwdown At The Hoedown,” a tune Fleck and Coffin used to perform together frequently.

While Flecktones material made up nearly half of the show, other songs in the two sets showed just how versatile Fleck is, from the two concertos he performed with the symphony (the third movement of Juno Concerto and second movement of The Imposter Concerto For Banjo And Symphony Orchestra) to the songs he played with Washburn: the gorgeous ballad “Bloomin’ Rose,” the hymnal “And Am I Born To Die” (which sounded sublime with the symphony’s strings behind it) and the jazzy “Take Me To Harlan.”

There was also “Another Morning,” from Fleck’s 1984 duets album, Double Time, which featured Douglas on resonator guitar and Colorado Symphony violinist Claude Sim; and the finale, the Celtic-steeped “County Clare,” which Fleck used to play with Bush in New Grass Revival during the ’80s, before leaving to head up the Flecktones.

On its current anniversary tour, the group has been running through some of its older material at soundchecks, including tunes the Flecktones haven’t played in nearly two decades, like “Jekyll And Hyde (And Ted And Alice)” from 1991’s Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo.

“Even some new things are trickling in,” Fleck said a few days later over the phone, regarding the set list. “We’re just sort of enjoying being together and letting it go where it wants to. There’s not a lot of stress to it, which is lovely. We’re not making a record. We’re not filming anything. We’re just out playing shows and being together and being ourselves. And the audiences seem to be very comfortable with a sort of casual show where we go out and we’re burning it up but we’re not trying to figure out how to entertain.

“We’re not concerned with anything except what turns us on musically, what parts of our repertoire we can explore and have fun with,” Fleck continued. “Everybody’s pushing each other and seeing what they can show each other that we haven’t seen before, which has always been a great thing about the Flecktones.” DB



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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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