It almost doesn’t matter who you see play at the Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Amphitheater, because it’s such a spectacularly appealing venue. The hike to get there, across the lake bridge, past the swan and pelican paddle boats, has a calming effect on the soul, and the amphitheater itself is small enough that every performance feels like it’s taking place in your backyard—which, in a way, it is. Concerts go from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., so nature provides a tranquil sunset and a blanket of stars for a backdrop. And at intermission, you get to check out the caribou on your way to the bathroom. What’s not to love?
Concerts at the zoo have been especially pleasant this year, which will no doubt go down in history as The Great Bugless Summer of 2007. Last night, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and his Flecktones were entertaining the humans, and the evening could not have been more perfect. Fleck and company flirted very close to perfection themselves, filling the sky with their signature brand of jazz-grass funk-jam fusion.
Fleck is not a flashy performer; he looks like a stock broker on vacation, wearing jeans and a T-shirt when he plays. About the only thing he moves onstage is his hands. Fleck’s right hand happens to include one of the most highly developed opposable thumbs in the history of civilization, however, and what he can do with it on a banjo, the least appealing musical instrument ever invented, is a true miracle of talent and genetics. What makes the Flecktones special, though, is that Béla has surrounded himself for the past eighteen years with musicians of equal genius, including the incomparable Victor Wooten on bass, his brother Roy “Futureman” Wooten on percussion, and Jeff Coffin on saxophone, flute, and everything else.
As amazing as Fleck is on the banjo, it’s Victor Wooten who really gets the crowd going. A short guy with bouncy dreadlocks and a boyish smile, Wooten can create a pocket of funk as deep and wide as anyone and, when he’s playing with his looping machines and effects pedals, he can coax a symphonic range of sounds out of a four-string bass and deliver them all with blistering, funkadelic speed. The band doesn’t have a drummer, per se. Instead, it’s got Wooten’s brother, Roy, who wears a pirate’s hat and provides most of the “drum” groove by banging on a SynthAxe guitar synthesizer, which is a bizarre instrument that looks like a kid’s toy dug out of the rubble of the apocalypse and patched together with duct tape and bubble gum.
As usual, the Flecktones played a wide variety of tunes, including several from their album The Hidden Land, which won the Grammy for Best Jazz Album last year. In one of the few verbal exchanges with the audience, Fleck joked that the award was great because “now we know that we’re a jazz band.” It’s a joke because Fleck’s music is unclassifiable, and he and everyone else knows it. Last night, they even found a way to make the Beatles’ “Come Together” sound like it was written by Les Paul and John Coltrane.
Lest we forget that it’s Béla’s band, though, Fleck wrapped up the show with a fifteen-minute solo banjo medley that included some token “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and snatches of the most revered tune in the banjo canon, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” otherwise known as The Beverly Hillbillies theme song. After that, there was nothing left to do but bow to the master and howl into the starry night, grateful for that rarest of things, a mosquitoless night in August, in Minnesota, at the zoo.