The Core: Béla Fleck & the Flecktones

Mike Greenhaus on June 17, 2016

After a four-year hiatus, the original Flecktones reunite for another round of Rocket Science and other experiments.


Victor Wooten: We all knew that it was time to take a break and give everyone a chance to focus on their own things, their families. We’d been touring hard for a few decades. After we recorded Rocket Science in 2011, our reunion record with [original Flecktones harmonica player/keyboardist] Howard Levy, we all agreed to give it one year—meaning tour hard one year, then no plans after that and just see what happens. Over the past few years, Béla, my brother [Roy “Futureman” Wooten] and I would occasionally talk and say, “Are we ready to do anything?” So far, the consensus had been: “No, not yet, but we’ll see.”

Béla Fleck: It feels like two years, rather than four, since we played together. We ended our last tour in Louisville, Ky., at the same venue where we played our first show, and I remember Futureman said, “Well, that’s it. We ended at the beginning. We came full circle. Why would we play together again? It’s perfect.” But, by the time we finished that tour with Howard, we were pretty jazzed up, and I said, “Well, there is the fact that we like playing together.” I had no doubt we could make some more great music. We thought about that for a while, and he came back and said, “You’re right. There’s no need for it to end.”

I was happy to hear that, but Victor was the one who was really struggling with touring so much. Not only does he have his own incredible music, but he has four kids. We had a meeting and were throwing around ideas. He said, “I don’t want to be the one to say this, but I need to be able to be with my family. My kids are growing up quickly and I’m building this camp system.” His issues were very legitimate. Otherwise, I think we would have kept something going.

I was a little disappointed, but it set the stage for me to do a lot of things that have been life and career highlights, like my work with Chick Corea and my duo project with my wife, Abigail Washburn. I did my first banjo concerto a few years ago. I put it off as long as I could and then, finally, it just seemed like the right time—everything came together.

Howard Levy: The Flecktones were a full-time band when I originally left in 1992. It didn’t leave me the chance to do anything else. It’s not like I hated it—I just hated the feeling of not having any time to do any of my own projects. And Béla, especially, loved to live on the road. He wanted to do The Flecktones exclusively, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. And the fact that I had to go to Nashville to rehearse and record meant that I was gone half the year. I was the only one in the band with kids, and they were little. We played together sporadically over the years, but after Jeff Coffin started touring with Dave Matthews Band fulltime around 2008-2009, Béla approached me about doing another record. We had a little, experimental three-week tour, and it felt good and we all got along great. So Béla said, “How about doing a record and a serious one-year tour?” I really had to think about it—I wasn’t sure—but I’m extremely glad that I did it.

In terms of arranging our music, it is always cooperative, but I tend to write tunes on my own. It’s never been easy for me to write with other musicians. But one of the things I enjoyed the most about Rocket Science was writing tunes with Béla. It was a wonderful collaboration in every way and they just turned out great, and we came up with songs we would never have come up with on our own.


VW: The Flecktones had some very fortunate years in the beginning, including shows with the Dead and Jerry Garcia Band. VH1 was just starting, and they took a liking to us and gave us our own show and played our video a lot. We also opened up for Chicago and were the opening band for the vocal group Take 6. We did The Tonight Show five times with Johnny Carson and two times with Jay Leno, as well as The Arsenio Hall Show and Conan.

When Jerry died and all these other bands started coming in to fill that void and created the jamband scene, we were in the midst of that. Fans looking for a place to go latched onto us and Béla’s Jerry Garcia connection. As a band, we owe a lot to them.


VW: In the beginning of The Flecktones, with Howard, the band was so fresh and new. There was nothing quite like the four of us—my brother once said, “We’re all out here on a limb and we’re all out here together.” We had these four guys on strange instruments that were totally stretching and taking it into new territory. For me, being the youngest, it was such an eye-opening learning experience to be around these virtuosos. Howard was the elder of the band. It was through The Flecktones that I became known as a jazz improviser. Before that, I had been playing R&B and funk, a lot of thumb-style playing. With the birth of The Flecktones, all of a sudden, I’m soloing a lot and kind of became known for my chops and flashy playing. When Howard left, we became a trio and that pushed us even further. Now I’m, literally, playing a bassline on one hand and chords and a melody on the other hand.

Those were fun years because we got to play with a lot of guests, whether it was Sam Bush, Andy Narell, Edgar Meyer or Andy Statman. Jeff Coffin started as just another guest and, when he joined us, he had this very rhythmic style. He was also melodic and he gave us a whole new sound, which brought us to where we are currently. Most of our fans know us from the Jeff era. That’s a great era.

HL: The Flecktones always intersected with the jamband scene, although, compositionally, our numbers were much more complex. When I left the band, I think The Flecktones also realized that they had this whole new, big audience and started tailoring their music more toward that—they were opening for Dave Matthews. You have to play to your audience, and the audience fully embraced them, but they also met them halfway a little bit more than when I was in the band. The keyboards and the harmonies on some of the tunes were a little more intricate early on and, when I left, there was just the banjo and the bass for solos.


BF: Originally, we were talking about 2017 being a major Flecktones year, but everyone had so much going on that it was hard for them to block out a big chunk of time, so we put that idea on hold. Whenever The Flecktones got together, we didn’t just do a few gigs, we always worked up a whole new album. It’s part of our charter: We don’t go out just to play. We go out because we have some new music and we’re trying to push it to the next level.

It never occurred to us that we could go out for only a few gigs. That wasn’t The Flecktone way. But it bothered me on a fundamental level that it had been so long since we played together because we all love each other, and nobody is down on the band. So when Craig Ferguson asked us to play Telluride, I asked the guys what they thought about doing a warm-up run ending at the festival, which was always a highlight of our year. When we first talked about touring this year, there was a lot of discomfort—including my own—about taking time away from all that we’ve been developing separately and our own identities. But when I asked about a short tour and then Telluride, it was instant yeses from everybody. Everybody regretted that we hadn’t been able to make 2017 work.

VW: Finally, we decided to get together and do something, and then it was about finding the time. Everybody has their lives now. These two weeks in June were the first time that seemed feasible that everybody could do it. We’re barely able to fit it all in for this run in June. Early on, we decided that it was going to be with Howard, if Howard was available. We did talk about bringing Jeff Coffin back for this run, but we knew pretty much right away that it would be Howard. Jeff is busy with Dave Matthews and it just made sense.


BF: When The Flecktones took a break, it was the perfect time for Abby and I to have a child. I didn’t want to be an absentee parent. I’d seen a lot of my friends go through the pain, the struggle, the sadness of that. I’ve seen Victor go through it. So, in a way, it set up a perfect scenario for me to go off and not only reunite with the bluegrass and acoustic music community by playing in a banjo duo with my wife, and vocal music with a real banjo-centric group, but also to be a parent and get to have that experience before the ride is over. We have a wonderful kid, and I’ve been loving that.

If The Flecktones became a full-time thing again like it was, then it would make it very hard. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s not the best for anybody, which is what’s so great about this point in everybody’s lives. We all have very solid, separate, discrete, happy, musical lives. Nobody wants to drop everything to do any one thing. This is our first attempt at a new paradigm for The Flecktones. We are finding ways to continue to exist and be relevant to ourselves—and to the musical community—without having it be the only thing we do.


BF: In the old days, we kept every setlist and, when we came back to a town, if we didn’t have new material, then we would rotate it so people wouldn’t have the same experience. The hardest part of this tour is getting all the equipment together and putting together a crew. VW: I doubt we’ll work up new material this tour because our time is so limited. More than likely, it’s going to be a combination of material from throughout our career—from our Howard days to our post-Howard days, so Howard will have to learn some songs he’s never played before.

Going back and listening to all of this music again, I’m realizing not only how amazing it is, but also how hard it is, too. Béla sent us this video to watch, and I’m listening and thinking, “Wow, we really played that?” It was fast—crazy time signatures everywhere. The main thing: It’s going to be challenging to really relive some of that music. I like the challenge, I like pushing myself, but we really want to get back to this music and do it justice.


HL: I saw the Grateful Dead play the Fillmore East before it was called the Fillmore East, in 1968. It was just before Live/Dead, but they were already getting into that material. When I worked with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on Ken Nordine’s Devout Catalyst, I remember telling Jerry about that show, and he just told me what drugs they were doing— amphetamines. I was actually at the Grateful Dead’s last show at Soldier Field. I was married at the time and turned to my wife and said, “God, he looks like death.” He had a beautiful solo on “So Many Roads” that I’ll never forget. I just had this feeling, so we left after that. I wanted to remember what I just heard.


VW: After I hit the last note on the Telluride stage, I run to the airport to take a red-eye flight to Boston, where I’ll be teaching the next morning at Berklee. We’ll be starting our summer bass program the next day. It’s a good, busy time.