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Warner Brothers 9 46247-2 (1996)

by Jenine Abarbanel

"Live Art" is the long awaited live album from the Flecktones. Long awaited by whom, you might ask? Well, anyone who has ever heard them live, for a start. Compare "Live Art" with the slick and mellow "Tales from the Acoustic Planet." and you'll see my point exactly.

The beauty of this live double album is apparent in the very first piece, "New South Africa," a beautiful, hopping tune, the equivalent of aural sunshine. The second tune (track 3 on the CD, track 1 being a brief 'pre-show chatter' track) is "Stomping Grounds," a tune the Flecktones have been doing live for a while but have only recorded for the first time here.

"Stomping Grounds" is my personal favorite Flecktone tune for about 6,000 reasons. You cannot sit still while listening to this song. Consisting of three melody components, every segment of this song will keep your feet tapping and your head bopping. Musically, "Stomping Grounds" is a playground, and always contains a section in the middle where the musicians just go at it, improvising from here to there. During a show, don't be surprised to hear anything from Bach to the theme from "Gilligan's Island" stuck in there. For the album, Bela -- who produced, edited and mixed the CD himself -- either found a performance of the song where the improvisation was very short and restrained, or he conducted a sweet bit of editing to bring the song down to a more albumesque five and a half minute length, rather than the typical 10 or more. The album version features Paul McCandless on the soprano sax and Sam Bush on the mandolin, making this for me the ideal rendition of an always-changing song.

The fun is just starting with track 4. "Lochs of Dread" was originally recorded by a band called Strength in Numbers, which Bela was in. And though that first version is excellent (it's impossible for this song not to be fun), it just doesn't compare to the Flecktones' rendition. Bela, Victor, and Futureman kick the hell out of this song, with help from Paul on an extremely cool bass clarinet and Sam again with the mando.

Did I mention this was a long album? The two CDs are an hour a piece, 10 songs each. At about $20 for the two, this is a lot of bang for your musical buck. And, with the musical diversity of the two CDs, you can listen to it over and over and over without getting bored or burned out. I've tested this theory personally.

"Big Foot" is great, for the liner notes alone. Sam plays fiddle in this version, making me VERY HAPPY because, frankly, Sam rocks. "Far East Medley" is beautiful and harmonious, reminiscent of drinking green tea on a calm day. "Flying Saucer Dudes" and "UFO Tofu" will give you some idea as to why this album, as with most of the Flecktone's albums, is considered "Contemporary Jazz."

For those of you unfamiliar with the Flecktones, Bela plays acoustic and electric banjo, Victor Lemonte Wooten plays the bass guitar, and Futureman is the percussionist. Note I did not say "drummer." It's a rare day you'll see a drum set on a Flecktone's stage. Futureman plays the synthax drumitar, an extremely cool bit of technology he came up with himself that lets him be 5 drummers all at once. To watch him play you wouldn't think he was doing much at all; it's only when he stops that you realize how amazing what he's been doing really is. Futureman ('Futch' for short) also plays a zendrum, basically an instrumented board with samples. Every show, Futureman gets a chance to do his stuff. I'm not sure if he makes it up as he goes or if he carefully plans each piece, but it's different every show. The selection chosen for "Live Art" is one of his best (of course), IMHO. If Futureman ever makes an album of his own, it's going to kick the Rave/Ambient scene on its ass.

The last two songs on the first CD, and the first on the second, highlight the not-inconsiderable talents of Victor, the single most amazing bass player on the planet. Ah, I see doubt on your face, grasshopper. Go see them play and doubt no more. "Vix 9" is a jazzy piece that Victor wrote. "The Message" is a lot of fun, and features Victor rapping. The first track on the second CD begins with Victor improvising a little on the bass, demonstrating some of his superhuman technical skill with the instrument. He then leads into his signature version of "Amazing Grace," which is probably my favorite rendition of this gospel standard. Victor manages to get some crazy harmonics out of the bass which will leave you convinced there had to be more than one person playing.

"Shubbee's Doobie" is a nice little song, a bit countrified, even reminiscent of early Doobie Brothers songs. This could be the power of suggestion. The third track on the second CD is a nice little rendition of "Oh Darling" with Bela picking it on the electric banjo. John Cowan sings on this one, and though he is lauded near and far as an exceptional singer with a wonderful voice, well, his singing has always given me the willies. Still, this is a nice version of the song.

According to the liner notes, "Sunset Road" almost made it into a movie, then didn't, then the movie was a miserable failure, and serves them right, too. This is a great song, and it's sad that we never hear the lyrics Futureman wrote for it. The reason for this is, mainly, that Futureman is a great singer. You get a *tiny* taste of this on track 6, "More Luv" written by Victor, which is another favorite of mine.

Every Flecktone show features Bela sitting with his acoustic and just noodling. A great sample of this is given on track 7. Bela takes us through some of his early stuff, some improv, to Bach, then right on to the banjo-mandatory "Ballad of Jed Clampett." It's fun to watch an audience's realization: "oh NO, he's playing the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies!" It's obvious Bela gets a kick out of this.

The album wraps up with three Flecktone standards, "Cheeseballs in Cowtown," "The Sinister Minister," and "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo." Cheeseballs is a fun, very bluegrassy song, written while Bela was vacationing/touring with Tony Trischka in New Zealand. Minister was made into the only Flecktone video ever made. I, personally, have never really cared for this song, but I have to admit the version selected for this album is really good.

You always get one encore song at a Flecktone show. One. And only one. It's the Flecktone equivalent of the 15% tip. You have to be a really really bad audience to not get one (I think the only time they didn't do an encore song that I've seen is at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, but my memory of that event could be blurry). And I'm not sure what you'd have to do to get TWO encore songs, I hear it happens, but I'm yet to experience it. The encore song on "Live Art" is "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo." The track starts off with Bela getting a little audience participation going, which gets a little old after you've listened to the album 17,000 times. But the flight itself is well worth it. This is a fine and worthy song to end such a fantastic album.

Go buy it. Christmas is coming, buy a couple of copies, give them to all your friends and family members. This album will appeal to everyone. You really can't go wrong.

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