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FLECK - Fleck, Friends Dazzle with Dexterity - Bluegrass Sessions concert (Chgo Trib, 9-17-99)

Bela Fleck and the Bluegrass Sessions Band, concert review





By David Royko

Sam Bush stood alone on Navy Pier's Skyline Stage Wednesday, chording

and chopping on his mandolin. The evening's mystery man, guitarist

Bryan Sutton--replacing the ailing Tony Rice for this leg of the tour--

joined Bush, further fleshing out the opening tune's harmonies.

Stuart Duncan followed, his fiddle sighing and moaning atop the rhythm.

Then came Jerry Douglas, with biting yet fluid dobro lines snaking

through the ever-building ensemble.

When Mark Schatz strolled out and fattened the sound with his bass

notes, the stage literally was set for banjoist Bela Fleck, who

appeared to finally introduce the melody of his original instrumental,

"Blue Mountain Hop."

Dubbed The Bluegrass Sessions Band, in reference to Fleck's new CD, and

presented by the Old Town School of Folk Music, it is the kind of

musical aggregation that hard core progressive bluegrass fans dream

about. It is also an all-star unit rarely encountered away from the

summer festival circuit, due to the various individual career demands.

It was an opportunity to be savored.

Those who are drawn to bluegrass for the hot licks were served bushels

full, with breakneck traditional numbers, such as "Wheel Hoss" and

"White House Blues," keeping the endorphins flowing. The balance of

speed, control, thrust, and coherent musical ideas the players attained

at staggering tempos was as challenging to a listener to absorb as it

was entertaining to watch.

However, bluegrass has always been as much about the blues as anything

else. That fact was underlined with the second set's long duet version

of "Sailin' Shoes/Crossroads," where Bush's vocals and "wall of sound"

mandolin , and Douglas' sliding dobro solos, allowed each to bounce

ideas off one another, building to an intensity that belied the

stripped-down instrumentation.

Another element of bluegrass notable more for what it excludes is that

no drums are allowed, and this group complied, except for one

remarkable "drum solo" bassist Schatz took, using his hands on various

body parts, trading fours and eights with Fleck's banjo and Duncan's

fiddle, elevating what would have been, in less musical hands (pardon

the pun), a novelty, to something worth listening to.

Sutton, best known for his work in Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder

bluegrass band, performed beautifully, pulling fire from his strings as

he stoked the rhythmic furnace, and spinning solos that demonstrated he

belongs on stage with such fast company.

Perhaps the most gripping moment of the night came when Bush and Fleck

were left alone on the stage after the rest of their bandmates had

disappeared one by one at show's end.

The musical rapport and twin-like phrasing, nurtured during their years

together in New Grass Revival, paid off as they locked into a

banjo/mandolin duel on Fleck's "Major Honker."

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