Acoustic Planet Tour, NTELOS Pavilion Portsmouth, VA- 8/31
On the Acoustic Planet Tour's date with Portsmouth, VA, a few musicians were damn close to home. Keller Williams was born, raised and made his career in VA. The Flecktones' Wooten Brothers (percussionist Roy "Futureman" Wooten and bassist Victor Wooten) grew up a 20-minute drive from the venue, barring traffic, in Newport News; I'm proud to say we have that in common. This choice location allowed Futureman the now-rare opportunity to give his high school drum instructor a shout out of love, from the stage.
Colorado's Yonder Mountain String band was far from home, but well on their way back. Distance from their "Kinfolk" was pretty evident when the pavilion wasn't even close to full as YMSB took the stage. "We're hoping tonight in protest, we can just be silent the entire gig," Jeff Austin (mandolin) said. He was joking, but it's personally disheartening to see YMSB at packed Bonnaroos (II and III – Which Stage) and then in my home territory with a lagging crowd. Don't think though that they were deterred or that the present feet weren't dancing. A better showing of crowd support would have really been nice and exposed the gap between my wrong assumptions about some bands people should know are deserving of their time and most people's actual perceptions of those bands as just another opener. Anyone can make 7:00 P.M.; doors cracked at 5:00.
YMSB is a perfect first band for Acoustic Planet. They represent a vital root, jamming bluegrass tunes into and out of one another and showcasing traditional songs, that Bela Fleck and the Flecktones own modern style of bluegrass-jazz-funk, heavy on Bela's banjo, is influenced by. "Hill Country Girl" sparked the somewhat disheartened crowd (where was everybody else?). Dave Johnston's banjo was answered by Austin's dribble and came back to win the debate decidedly. A new YMSB song, "Sometimes I've Won," features Ben Kauffman's (upright bass) singing, "I need help finding my way home;" it doesn't get more appropriate. "One week from today we'll be home," Austin interjected, "we're psyched to be in that direction."
Crowds love "Ramblin'," during which the band actually took shots (a toast) following the line, "After one more Jagermeister shot." "Cheers mofo," Austin hollered to growing group of heads. "Ramblin'" stopped short and "New Horizons" drew Victor Wooten from backstage to finger the notes on Kauffman's upright while Kauffman bowed them out. Futureman also guested, playing his seat/box with a set of brushes. Austin hip-hoped for a second by interjecting some vicious scratches along his mandolin strings. "Holdin'," a personal favorite, focused in after "New Horizons" and held Futureman to his box. Austin and Kauffman created a beautiful kindred harmony ("You know when I'm holdin', there's no need you holdin' too.") and silenced. Johnston plucked the melody (excellent) before the harmonic scat session, "Do Do Do Do Do Do Do." Futureman dipped out and the song morphed back into "Ramblin," which shots had interrupted a few minutes earlier. Good times!
High lonesome "Idaho" was welcomed for Adam Aijala's (guitar) smooth vocals. Johnston's new song, "Night is Left Behind," was a tad off key as his earpiece kept falling out, a vocalist's nightmare. He held strong though through the irony; "Sing your way through the hard times," Johnston sang. Austin introduced Aijala for "Oklahoma" as the "big daddy of acoustic power chords." Thankfully, his power chords became finesse picking in this tune about staying out of sight of the law.
Keller Williams attended "Elzic's Farewell." As YMSB exited, one at a time, the stage became his; there were no set breaks other than for the encore. Keller is a one-man band who loops each of his instruments (varying depending on the song) over one another creating layers of sound that eventually become the canvas he will sing or beatbox during; the loop technique is actually a skill he credits to Victor Wooten. This style stages a bard who, rather than having to look back and forth at his partners for cues and such, can stare his fans in the eyes all night long if he so chooses. Aijala lent his pick through a version of Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing." Keller added, "Don't give a damn about any trumpet playing band," and then of course proceeded with making trumpet noises with his mouth alone."Thin Mint" went from run to crawl. "More Than a Little" began with a bass loop and Keller grabbing a triangle. A few tings and the triangle was looped also. The guitar loop was next and then mouth percussion. In very Grateful Dead fashion (everyone knows Williams loves the Grateful Dead) his guitar turned into another instrument altogether (steel drum effect). "You can smell it from a mile away because that shit be funky," Williams rapped. Fleck came out to offer his banjo. Personally I'm a fan of Williams' one-man-band gig, but OK. The duo was a little sloppy going into Nirvana's "Lithium" (yeah, that's right), but turned tight. Fleck bluegrassed the song (what would Cobain think?) and then left Williams' in his familiar stage-lonely state, grinning at the crowd.
Williams' ode to the city next door (Virginia Beach) was next: "Vabeeotchee." You could feel/see/hear the love during his operatic chants of "Vabeeotchee" and his passion for VA, singing, "I like this place, but I have to leave. Much better than reality." Sublime's "What I got" squirted through "Vabeeotchee." Keller painted (looped) a grimace-faced bass line and really showed off during his mouth slap-bass session. "Love is what I got," sang Williams. Then he told the crowd, which was already repeating that line with him, "Don't stop." The audience repeated the line a few more times (sans Williams), echoing off like the approaching glorious "Thunder," an emotionally beautiful and playful song. Keller's mouth horn was at its best battling his supplied mouth explosions after the line "above all the thunder."
"Irie Loup" lay down for the Grateful Dead's "Help on the Way" (YMSB's Austin hit every note and then some well placed extras) and on "Dude Loup" Williams waved at his theremin (World's first electronic musical instrument invented in 1918 by Leon Theremin) a couple rounds. This, a now rarely used instrument since the days of 1950's sci-fi films, is a metal rod which, when you move your hand towards it makes some interestingly frightening squeals and howls.
"It feels real good to be right here in the Tidewater area. I love this place. Thanks for listening, my name is Keller Williams," he said. He must not realize he's a star yet if he's doing introductions. Bruce Hornsby's (another VA native) "The Old Valley" was reborn, Williams playing while dancing with his guitar. He broke the melody into a funk rhythm that was cemented by the ever-funky bass of Victor Wooten. Next came the rest of Bela and the Flecktones and "The Old Valley" continued to grow as Williams's exited stage left.The remainder was a Fleck banjo party for the most part. Fleck and Futureman stared at one another from across stage during "Big Country" (Fleck from stage right, Future from stage left), placing their extended open hands to their foreheads to block the overhead lights from their eyes as Victor and Jeff Coffin (saxophones) battled in between them. Fleck's non-shade hand teased his banjo until he was done looking across the stage and a two handed roar ensued.
"Mudslinger" blacked out the stage so Victor could lay the groove while his bro finessed snare rimshots under the brightening golden light. Fleck and Coffin chimed and Wooten bass funk bounced: "waca waca waca." These guys have a wonderful feel for one another as musicians and their attentiveness allows them to let air breath through their notes. If someone were to stop completely, who knows, the whole universe could implode. But, someone always has an answer to the improvisational breaths. Fleck caressed every inch of his banjo's neck until Futureman's tumble signaled the end.Fleck greeted the audience and asked for some applause for YMSB and Williams. Here, Futureman waved (said hi) to his high school percussion teacher in the crowd. "We (Victor and Roy Wooten) used to live here," he said, letting the crowd in on it. The crowd was already aware and let him know.
Greetings done, "Costa Brava" was amazing; Fleck's sitar influenced banjo and Coffin's tenor sax were a great team. Futureman's kit felt the Wooten wrath, emerging from a slow gong drone, he began popping his cymbals with the rings on his right hand. All the while Futureman played his one-of-a-kind synth (percussion) axe with his left hand (sometimes he stands up to play the axe; from a distance you'd think he was using some weird looking guitar). Certainly, his unique percussive theory is one not completely from his high school's (Denbigh High) music program.
Futureman is also the band's singer; his tenor ability is not a sound you'd expect from the large man. "I stand alone," he sang ("Sunset Road"), posed at the microphone, synch axe strapped tight to his frame. Coffin blew (soprano sax) into harmonic delight with Fleck, Futureman's axe went overload and as Coffin lay off, Victor stepped his bass playing up a notch. Fleck's best picking unearths gold with just the Wootens, not that Coffin isn't also a hell of a prospector. Bela sounds freer when he has the entire melody to his own.
"Nu C's" funk tripped into acid jazz tangents steered by Coffin. Thankfully, the best of the Bela and his Flecktones tonight was saved for deep into the set. Fleck's silken staccato introduction to "Off the Top" is gut-wrenchingly elegant; I love the intro more than the rest of the music really. Everyone was unstoppable, never stumbling, at speeds ranging from turtle trot to breakneck whiplash. Bela Fleck thanked the audience for their applause.
The mostly jazz-infused set ended with a Mississippi delta "Moment." "Every now and then comes the future so close," sang Futureman, so close to his own past. Victor walked to the front of the stage and slapped the shit out of his bass (Wow!), which (standing below him) I thought was surely going to splinter into my eyes. Then he spun the bass into orbit around his body (a la rock-n-roll), gravity supplied by the strong bass strap around his torso. Future marked his territory once more with a solo out and stagehands scurried to reset for the anticipated encore.
All of the mics were moved to the front of the stage; One mic (a la bluegrass) wasn't enough for all of the skill. "We're going to have a little jam session if y'all don't mind," offered Victor; no one minded.
Encore one: Leave it to Keller Williams to start off with a Dead track, "I Know You Rider." Williams and Austin partnered for the familiar chorus and they really are missed when they're gone. The banjo duel between Fleck and Johnston was masterful. Austin soloed the microphone, "I wish I was a headlight on a North Bound train." I can't deny my affection for the clacking of a slapped upright bass, thanks Kauffman, and (alongside Futureman's technique) I haven't heard many better. Keller's lip trumpet was great (a ca pella), as he fingered the air as though actually holding an instrument. Everyone took it once from the top and out.
Encore two (no walk off): John Hartford (1973-2001) wrote the heartfelt "Grand Ole Opry" when rumors stirred about its being torn down. The bluegrass song sent Keller towards the back of the stage, a place he's not used to seeing. Austin and Aijalla sang, "Another good think has done gone on, done and gone," almost.
Victor Wooten had something to say before the night was done. "This is probably a very good year to vote, and that's all I'm going to say about that," he said. You can form your own conclusions as to the urgency of the matter and who he thinks you should vote for, if you even care to.
Encore three (no walk off – final): "Every night of music should have a polka," said Victor, introducing "Polka on the Old Banjo." The crowd freaked into a dancing frenzy that only a rotund, sweaty, plad-clad accordion player could have made more joyous. Fleck and Johnston's shreds were feet shiftin' fine.
Requisite congrats and introductions of everyone on stage ensued and everyone walked up to shake a few lucky hands of fans who had rushed through the imaginary 15 foot barricade and to bow to everyone else. The party was over after 4 hours spent in a venue that was almost home to 1/3 of the participants. At least its pretty well certain that three of these guys will be back nearby sometime in the future; Keller Williams plays in Norfolk, VA (he loves us!) in November and hell, as Roy "Futureman" Wooten said, "We used to live here."