Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Brett Allen
Bela Fleck comes off as a cool customer. He's quiet and guarded and seems to keep his feelings to himself - at least around strangers. We tend to think that this might be a trait that he observes in general though, preferring instead to communicate otherwise, mostly via that banjo that he's always cradling and conspiring with. It speaks his manifesto. It puts the red in his blushing cheeks, when they're supposed to be and it is the muscle to his chest when he decides that he'd like to go in that direction. The 52-year-old Fleck is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished technical banjo players in the world and it's easy to get wrapped up in his wild adventures, picked out in a manic spread of fever and tangent. Fleck's able to score the filmstrips passing through our old-timey, sepia-toned brains, putting us out on the lawn or out on the creaky porch right when everything invisibly changes. His fingers and his mind work in conjunction with some seeded cloud to bring forth what can best be described as a weather event, a real downpour that can feel like a good pelting, or like the curtains on both sides of a suddenly darkened home misbehaving. The opened windows are caught with their pants down and their panes up as a rumbler takes shape and moves through, whipping the curtains in and out of the openings, getting sucked right into and flat with the screens, as if they were the hatched metal surface's leggings, getting pulled into those tiny squares as it started to erupt. Fleck opens up, lets it out when we get to certain points of his songs - these are the parts that we gasp at, where our eyes bug out. We on that porch or on that lawn as the wind starts to act up - the notes that he uses seemingly providing the prologue, setting the stage for what's about to happen next, even if an imaginative mind couldn't possibly predict what the next move is. It's that wild guess or that jump off the cliff that Fleck makes time and time again, giving his music a feeling of complete freedom - though all of it makes perfect sense. We can be going along, following the narrative - the sounds that he makes and the turns that he bends give the impression of words, or are words, we can hear them and understand them - and then, down come the fat droplets, the rain, beating against us, as if we were made of tin roofing, feeling and hearing each pluck distinctly, knowing that we couldn't turn away from or ignore this if we tried.