Five-string serenade

Bila Fleck and five aces deliver a bluegrass primer live in New York.

Published October 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Hometown banjo pioneer Bila Fleck, taking a break from the New Age crap played by his band the Flecktones, came to the Town Hall in New York with five ace acoustic musicians in tow. Joining Fleck were Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, newgrass pioneer and mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush, violinist Stuart Duncan and bassist Mark Schatz. (Tony Rice, the flatpicking guitarist, was supposed to be on the tour but was sick; Ricky Skaggs sideman Bryan Sutton sat in instead.) For more than two hours, Fleck and the string players transformed the storied hall on the edge of Times Square into a cavern of delights, giving the sold-out audience a primer on soulful melodies, finger-knotting runs and the impetuous thrills of the five-string banjo.

Fleck and his merry band of minstrels focused on tracks from the recently released "Tales From the Acoustic Planet -- The Bluegrass Sessions, Volume 2," which was itself a reprise of classic jazzgrass from the late 1980s. These musicians don't play together much anymore; Fleck is generally off with the Flecktones, and the rest of them earn their keep either as session musicians or by making increasingly specialized niche recordings.

But acoustic bluegrass is clearly the music Fleck and the others were put on this earth to perform, and they revel in plumbing its mysteries. Wednesday evening's best moments came not during breathtaking solos, but during extended group improvisations. As the six musicians weaved in and out of each others notes, Fleck's flattened banjo runs anchored Douglas' floating, otherworldly Dobro lines. "Lights of Home," a mournful number from Fleck's "Drive" (1988), particularly highlighted Douglas' majesty.

The evening was bookended by a pair of Bush solos. As the father of New Grass Revival -- the band that first breached the divide between bluegrass and jazz -- bobbed his shaggy head in time with his frenetic runs, his tattered Hawaiian shirt rippled in synch. It was Bush, rather than the self-effacing, preternaturally modest Fleck, who served as unofficial emcee for the night, providing the between-song banter, singing lead on the handful of vocal numbers and hamming it up for the crowd. Bush and Douglas began the second set with a rollicking duet of Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes," which Bush covered on his gem "Late as Usual" (1985).

There were other highlights, too, like the Fleck and Duncan duet on the Strength in Numbers song "Texas Red," during which Schatz did hysterical and surprisingly virtuoso percussion by tap dancing and slapping his legs, knees and face. And a cover of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' "McKinley's Gone" could serve as a primer for how fast the human hand can move over thin strings of metal, nylon and horse hair.

These musicians are unlikely to tour together again anytime soon. Even at the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where such gatherings used to be commonplace, it is rare to witness such an inspired and joyous gathering. When the history of bluegrass is written, Fleck, Douglas, Bush, Schatz and Duncan will be remembered as masters of their instruments, five true pioneers who helped propel this most American of music to another level. For one night last week in Manhattan, they shared this with several thousand New York aficionados.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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