Above photo, L-R: Yonder Mountain's Adam Aijala, Flecktone Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck and Keller Williams
Set aside for a moment any preconceived notions you might have about jambands. I'll admit, when I first saw the dreadlocks, hacky sacks and bra-burning, bandanna-wearing hippies, I was a bit anxious. But as I made my way to the front of the crowd amidst sweaty Marley-T-shirt-clad twentysomethings, the music of the Acoustic Planet Tour—featuring Keller Williams, Yonder Mountain String Band and Bèla Fleck & the Flecktones—started to reel in my straight-laced, non-granola self. I started to dance.
Keller Williams, dressed so casually he forgot his shoes, opened the night with an eight-minute introduction to his wide-ranging musical abilities. Grooving across the stage, he loops his acoustic guitar, then his bass and finally a triangle which he, theatrically, makes every bit as enjoyable as any other instrument he plays. Ignoring the rain drops, fans gravitate toward the foot of the stage, and my new dancing friends enter the psychedelic realm Williams’ music creates. During his most popular song of the night, “Freaker by the Speaker,” Williams welcomes Bèla Fleck to the loudest applause of the night. During Williams’ final number, the members of Yonder Mountain String Band trickle onstage one by one, and Williams and Fleck take a bow and discreetly vacate the stage. It’s the smoothest transition I’ve ever seen: no fifteen minute set changes, no time to grab another beer and cool off—just a barrage of music and dancing.
Cranking out bluegrass music for a new generation, YMSB is comprised of mandolin player Jeff Austin, bassist Ben Kaufmann, banjo player Dave Johnston and guitarist Adam Aijala. Austin sings lead on most of the songs, but all join in at times, giving the audience a sampling of the band’s Rocky Mountain sound. The Nashville crowd warmly receives songs like “Peace of Mind” and “Deep Pockets,” welcoming the direction in which YMSB steers traditional bluegrass. Flecktones percussionist Future Man—named for his unmatched skills on his one-of-a-kind electric Synthaxe Drumitar—drifts casually to the stage, and another impeccable transition occurs, as members of the Flecktones, and finally ringleader Bèla Fleck, appear and YMSB slowly leaves the stage.
Ten-minute-plus instrumentals are a staple of jambands, and tonight is no exception. I always thought the lulls and repetition were strategically placed to give the hippies a chance to put on their dancing brakes for a few minutes. But Jeff Coffin’s sax stylings coupled with Fleck’s banjo picking and Future Man’s occasionally mind-blowing Drumitar playing place this jazzgrass-fusion showcase of virtuosity far from any boring jam scenarios I’ve encountered in the past.
It’s the encore, though, that leaves everyone speechless. With Kaufmann and Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten trading off on bass and a flute/banjo showdown between Coffin and Fleck, the encore also includes a gospel tune, a Keller Williams original (“Gallivanting”) and a rap by Wooten, doing his part to promote the Left and encourage voting in the upcoming election.
At eclectic show’s end, the entire cast of the Acoustic Planet Tour gives a final wave. They’ve left the crowd with no doubt—tonight’s phenomenon of instrumental genius isn’t about to be limited to a musical genre.