Banjo Music for the Holidays

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Play Carols at UCSB

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

MERRY FLECKMAS: When we last we caught wizardly banjo man Béla Fleck in Santa Barbara, in 2007, he was in supportive mode, a star in semi-hiding on SOhO’s stage. He was playing second-fiddle banjoist to ace banjo picker Abigail Washburn and her Sparrow Quartet. Now, Washburn, the fascinating prog-Appalachian musician with a Chinese accent, is married to Fleck, who returns to town for his Flecktones Xmas show, which takes place tomorrow, Friday, December 17, at Campbell Hall.

If the Flecktones, Fleck’s beloved twenty-something fusion band, have been mostly off the radar in the last couple of years, the ever-active (hyperactive?) Fleck has been anything but idle. He has worked on ambitious soul-searching and roots-rediscovery recording and documentary projects in Africa (the banjo’s birthplace) and with a prime hero/influence, Chick Corea. Now it is Flecktones time again, as the band makes its third yuletide tour rooted in their stunning high-wire–act 2008 album, Jingle All the Way. A new Flecktones album is also coming in for a landing.

That Jingle All the Way is not your father’s or son’s Christmas album becomes immediately apparent on track one, a dizzyingly progressive take on “Jingle Bells.” Throughout the album, intricate lines and arrangements and brain-seizing-and-teasing sudden changes abound, including some wicked modulation meanderings on “Sleigh Ride” and clever metric puzzle work on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” plus a pinch of J.S. Bach in the mix. Messing further with stereotypes about what Christmas music should sound like, Tuvan group Alash supplies some disarmingly effective throat-singing melodies (Alash will be along for the sleigh ride at Campbell Hall). Campbell Hall’s Flecktones Xmas hoo-ha promises to be the headiest of yuletide concerts this year, as well as the second major, must-see banjo event in town, after Steve Martin’s surprisingly commanding show at the Granada this fall.

FRINGE PRODUCT GIFT GUIDE, PART DEUX: Marc Ribot, Silent Movies (Pi). Ambi-style guitarist Marc Ribot can easily summon up the wild man within and any number of other vibes to suit the gig at hand—e.g., work with Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, John Zorn, Henry Grimes, T-Bone Burnett (with whom Ribot played at the Lobero in 2006). But on his calmly compelling new album, Silent Movies, Ribot is on his most obliquely lyrical behavior, going solo on a series of vibe-filled tracks for real and imaginary movies.

Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony (Blue Note). Speaking of oblique lyricism … Silver Pony may not be the finest, most cohesive, or most hypnotically moody of Cassandra Wilson’s impressive discography, but its musical range offers a strong primer in what makes her a special member of the jazz chanteuse world. She moves easily from standardsville (“Lover Come Back to Me”) to her own backwoodsy-meets-Brooklynese originals and Wilson-ized covers of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” and that old Beatles standard “Blackbird” (she should do an entire album of more obscure Beatles tunes). In short, the album is a kindly and ear-massaging hodgepodge from an artist with that rare and proverbial Something to Say.

Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American/Lost Highway). Praises be to Rick Rubin for enabling a unique body of work in the last phase of Johnny Cash’s great American life. On this final finale in the series, Cash’s deep-boned wisdom comes through on whatever he sings, as usual, including Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” “Satisfied Mind,” and Cash’s own waltz-timing, Bible-tapping “I Corinthians 15:55.” The song set is eerily but beautifully framed by “Ain’t No Grave” and the Hawaiian farewell anthem “Aloha Oe.” The Man in Black is dead; long live the Man in Black.

Katy Perry, Teenage Dream (Capitol). My biggest disappointment in a dense year of live music-going was hearing about Katy Perry’s Dos Pueblos show a few hours too late. Say what you will—the cheeky, smart, powerful-voiced Perry is so pop-star huge, she’s fringe; so mainstream, she’s avant-garde; and so global, us locals can’t help but beam with proprietary pride that our burg done growed her. You go, gurl.


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