Time flies when you're having fun; when you're having fun and watching Bela Fleck and friends, fingers fly, too. But while pretty well everyone in the sold-out house was awestruck at the likes of D'Gary, more than one audience member was overheard remarking that they were shocked three hours had passed. It was that kind of show.
It's one thing to put together a stunning band, and that's something Fleck has done. Take the world's greatest banjo player and add: a leading blind Tanzanian singer-instrumentalist and his guitarist, playing blazing marimba lines; Madagascaran guitarist D'Gary (I've seen some fast guitarists, from John McLaughlin to Richard Thompson, but I have never seen anyone play a six-string with anywhere near that much speed) and percussionist Mario; South African singer-songwriter Vusi Malhasela; and Fleck's counterpart on the kora, Toumani Diabate. All of them were part of his new CD and documentary film, both called Throw Down Your Heart. (Also contributing was class A bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen.)
It's another thing to turn that into great music, and that's also something the band did. African music has been perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the world-music boom, and that's partly because it resonates well with American ears. (Maybe that's a product of the fact that much American music comes from African roots. One of Malhasela's songs, written about the brutalities of apartheid and the need for forgiveness, often sounded like a Piedmont blues.) Each set of musicians or musician played a two- or three-song set before being joined by Fleck for another song.
Fleck's an amazing musician—although I knew his music, I'd missed his frequent tours here and in high school, a mistake I won't repeat—but being able to see the masters make their music alone was magical (attempting to rank them would be foolish and impossible; attempting to describe each would take far more words than anyone wants to read). And the minisets allowed listeners to get a feel for each style and country, something that the more segmented disc makes impossible. When he did join them, his contributions were judicious and virtuosic. But perhaps my favorite moment was the last song of the first set, when he was joined by D'Gary, Mario and Driessen. With the three other musicians on-stage, Fleck was free to relax and occasionally lay out. Letting the banjo rest for a moment he stood back and watched the other three; the joy on his face was as strong as the joy in the audience, and said everything that needed to be said about the night.
Previously: Throw Down Your Heart album review