Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer, Washington State Center for the Performing Arts, Olympia, WA- 11/15
After a late start through Portland’s rush hour traffic and watching the clock as we sped up I-5 toward Olympia, we finally made it to the venue in the heart of Washington State’s capital. I didn’t want to be late for the Bela Fleck/ Edgar Meyer show because, I knew the concert would be a sit down show with more in common with a symphony performance than a typical jamband show. Plus, our second row seats would have made our tardiness apparent to all. We drove past the impressive Capital dome, found the venue, the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, frantically looked for a parking spot on the street and ran to the door just as the show was scheduled to begin. A smiling woman took our tickets and told us they were holding the show. For us? No, but we made it with minutes to spare.
Olympia seemed a strange choice for the only Northwest appearance of the banjo and double bass duo. Although it is the state capital, it is a small city, between Portland and Seattle, though closer to Seattle. Evergreen College, the highly regarded, choose-your-own-curriculum, we-don’t-give-letter-grades, liberal art college is just outside of the city and the student body was definitely represented in the audience. Fleck/Meyer had played the venue before in a different incarnation five years earlier. Fleck had been through the Northwest playing in Seattle and just outside of Portland in August. Fleck and the Flecktones are scheduled in Portland in February also, so we are definitely not neglected by the banjo player. It would have been nice to have Fleck/Meyers play in Portland but the show was definitely worth the drive.
Fleck and Meyer walked onstage with no introduction, each with his own acoustic instrument. Fleck settled in a chair with a microphone up against his banjo head and Meyer stood nearby. Without a single spare note of tuning, they launched into their first song, a Fleck original, “Poindexter”. The whole night was a night with no extraneous notes. Both virtuoso musicians, they played complex classical pieces, warm, folksy but intricately composed originals and jazz. They played composed pieces with precision and improvised with grace and emotion but it still felt like every note was in its place.
The sound seemed small at first, just a banjo and double bass, as promised. But, by the time Meyer grabbed his bow for a solo during the second song, Miles Davis’ “Solar,” their sound filled the room and captivated everyone’s attention. They followed the jazz tune with three short works by Bach. They nailed the “Canon”, which, in the DVD accompanying their duo CD Music for Two was a challenge to get up to speed the first time the pair toured in this format.
Set one also included a solo piece by Edgar Meyer. Meyer is a big man who plays a big instrument. He seems soft spoken, even shy, in person. But his playing is expressive and he almost dances with his big bass. His funky, improvised solo piece had him on his tiptoes swaying with his instrument, grunting and obviously working hard.
Set two began, just as the first, with the two men simply walking out to play. Fleck quipped to the audience, “You’re still here,” before launching into a tune. The set included a groove-oriented “Happy Drum Monkey Girl”, and Meyer sat at the piano for a beautiful rendition of “Circus of Regret” from Fleck’s Tales from and Acoustic Planet.
When Fleck pulled out his third banjo, Meyer deadpanned, “You know I have 7 or 8 basses too.” To which Fleck replied, “Well, let’s see them.” Though the comedic bits are probably well-worn, the camaraderie between the musicians is part of the attraction of catching this duo. The musical communication is stripped down, spare and intense. The complexity of the music and the acoustic instruments pull you in. The on stage banter just closes the loop and makes you feel as if you are part of this old friendship. “Y’know, I’m not one of those guys that has to play every note I know.” Meyer says. “Yeah, but you could play some of them.” Fleck responded.
Fleck’s solo portion of the show had him messing around a bit wit h the banjo that sat next to him while playing the one in his lap. When he got serious with the one he held, he segued from a straight ahead bluegrass performance to a classical piece, a combination that doesn’t immediately seem possible, but in Fleck’s hands was masterful.
The duo ended their set with “Wooly Mammoth”, and played a Fleck original for an encore with Meyer at the piano at first, and Fleck on a steel guitar. The evening was an impressive show of musicianship, an intimate performance by friends and a mixture of so many styles and traditions of music; it is really what “jamband” music is all about. There was no dancing, no clouds of sweet smoke rising through the light cones and no glow sticks or veggie burritos, but this is a show that any jamband music fan would enjoy.