By Jon Bream
It was your music geeks’ Christmas show.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones did not offer an easy-listening Yule program Monday at the jam-packed Guthrie Theater. This concert was about serious musicianship in various styles (jazz, funk, folk, bluegrass, classical and Tuvan). You had to listen closely to figure out just which carol this instrumental quintet was playing as the players segued from tune to tune, dressing up the proceedings with free-flowing, melody-obscuring excursions. Throw in special guests, the Alash Ensemble (Tuvan throat singers/folk musicians), and this was not only one of the most remarkable Christmas concerts this year but one of the most rewarding performances of all of 2009.
The Flecktones, a trio of late, were aided by the return of saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who has been touring with the Dave Matthews Band, and guest violinist Casey Dreissen. Bela Fleck dazzled on his acoustic and electric banjos but it was Victor Wooten stealing the show with a long and winding bass solo that traveled through “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Nutcracker Suite” and “Jingle Bells,” among others. Afterward, Twin Cities musician Paul Peterson, who was sitting down the row, told me: “I can officially throw my bass into the garbage now.” By the way, he and Wooten are good friends who were headed to Bunkers after the concert.
Coffin’s contributions on flute and saxes (he played two at once during one number) upped the jazz vibe of the evening. Dreissen added a bit of Irish and folk flavor. But it was the Alash Ensemble from Siberia that made this a chilling performance. Hearing Tuvan throat singing – a mesmerizing drone that sounds as if each of the four men were singing multiple notes at once – in the acoustic splendor of the Guthrie was magical. And they were doing “Jingle Bells,” no less. Thankfully, the quartet did some traditional Tuvan songs about beautiful women and horses (so we were told) and, in the end, collaborated with the Flecktones in a fascinating call and response between Eastern and Western musicians.
During their 175 minutes onstage, the Flecktones covered an extensive catalogue of Christmas tunes, including a challenging, show-off-y reading of “The 12 Days of Christmas” for which each day was done in a different style, key and time signature. A music geek’s delight indeed.
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