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Published: 2018/02/07
by Matt Reed

Bela Fleck & Brooklyn Rider in Billings, MT

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider’s winter tour touched down in Montana’s “Magic City” over the weekend for an evening of avant-garde collaboration in the historic Alberta Bair Theater. Fleck, the innovative banjo virtuoso, along with the genre-defying string quartet Brooklyn Rider, approached the stage to resounding applause. “So it’s going to be like that?” Fleck joked as the band tuned their instruments.

Lauded as “the future of chamber music” by Strings magazine, Brooklyn Rider is comprised of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas, known collectively for their technical prowess and ability to fuse youthful energy with classical music. Paired with Grammy Award winning Fleck, the unique collaboration fused the otherwise opposing spheres of classical music and American roots, creating a sound of their own over the course of the evening.

The performance opened with the aptly titled, “The Landing,” a reflective tune from Fleck’s Tales from the Acoustic Planet. The quintet emitted a poised, yet meditative calm, as if to re-wire the audience’s neural pathways for the eclectic evening to come. The vibrant “Next” was to follow, a song written by Fleck and Victor Wooten for the Flecktones’ Little Worlds album. If Fleck served as the underlying energetic current, Brooklyn Rider were brilliant appendages, elevating the song to new heights while guided by Fleck’s anchoring rhythm. The group then slid into “Quintet for Banjo and Strings: Movement II,” written by Fleck and Edgar Meyer for Juno Concerto.

The first set ended with the sprawling “Night Flight Over Water,” a multi-movement classical piece written by Fleck for banjo and string quartet. Over the course of its twenty-plus minutes, “Night Flight Over Water” transported the audience on a mind-bending journey through an imaginative landscape where, as Fleck quipped, the “strange bedfellows” of banjo and classical string quartet are one and the same. As it soared through space, the piece seemed to prod both past and present simultaneously, conjuring images of the ancient sea that flowed near the theater’s stage some 80 million years ago, coupled with the inevitable Jetsons-esque scene that would eventually unfold on its shores. “This is longer than Freebird,” someone next to us whispered. Indeed.

Following a brief intermission, Brooklyn Rider returned to the stage to perform “String Quartet No. 7,” written by the legendary composer Philip Glass. Fleck then joined the group for a rendition of Colin Jacobsen’s “Loveland,” to be followed—as Jacobsen joked to the crowd—by Fleck “going off on his own flight of fancy.” As “Loveland” came to a close, Fleck led the audience through a stunning ten-plus minute solo, which came to an end after an abrupt nod to “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Amidst thundering applause, Fleck remarked wryly, “Sometimes it just comes out that way.”

Next came a piece called “Griff” (based on a riff in G), written by Fleck for Juno Concerto. Highlighting Fleck’s ability for boundary dissolving compositions, “Griff” provided a vehicle that allowed the unlikely pairing of banjo and quartet to fall into an utterly seamless groove. The group then transitioned into Brooklyn Rider’s “Brooklesca,” inspired by the “incredible diversity” of the quartet’s old neighborhood. As it steadily swelled into a torrent of cross-cultural sounds, Fleck’s banjo locked in with violins, viola, and cello, launching the piece into a frenzied gypsy caravan to end the second set.

After a standing ovation, the group closed with “County Clare,” New Grass Revival’s high-energy Irish bluegrass tune; a fitting end to an incredible evening of instrumental storytelling.

***

Béla Fleck & Brooklyn Rider
Alberta Bair Theater, Billings, MT

Set I:
Landing (Béla Fleck)
Next (Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten)
Quintet for Banjo and Strings: Movement II (Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck)
Night Flight Over Water (Béla Fleck)

Set II:
String Quartet No. 7 (Philip Glass)
Loveland (Colin Jacobsen)
Béla Fleck Improv/Jam
Griff (Béla Fleck)
Brooklesca (Colin Jacobsen)

E:
County Clare (Béla Fleck)

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