He’s one of the most versatile, adventurous musicians in the world. A winner of 15 Grammy Awards in nine categories, Béla Fleck has performed in a stunning range of contexts, from classical concert halls to jazz clubs to villages in West Africa. Yet after many travels and much effort raising people’s awareness of the flexibility and soul of his chosen instrument, the banjo, Fleck’s musical heart will always find a home where it started, in bluegrass.
On Wednesday, December 15, Fleck will take the stage at the Arlington Theatre with an elite group of bluegrass musicians who have been his creative companions and collaborators for upwards of four decades. The concert, which kicks off UCSB Arts & Lectures’ “Soul of America” series, features mandolinist Sam Bush, fiddler Stuart Duncan, dobro player Jerry Douglas, bassist Edgar Meyer, and guitarist Bryan Sutton.
In part, it’s a celebration of Fleck’s recent release, the extravagant double album My Bluegrass Heart, but it’s more than that, according to Fleck. When I spoke to him by phone last week, he described the album as one of his periodic “love letters to the bluegrass community” and then insisted that the concert and tour is a piece of history. “I’m not looking to have my name out front on this,” he told me, “and we’re not just going to play music from the new album. We don’t have forever to do this.” Listeners can thus expect old and new songs, all delivered by the greatest bluegrass players of the modern era.
If you’ve been to the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, you will perhaps have heard this star-studded ensemble before, but never quite like this. Firstly, that’s typically a single performance. On this tour, the group will have the advantage of playing multiple shows back to back, which is a great way to develop an even deeper understanding of one another and the music. Secondly, Fleck shared with me the news that thanks to some high-tech in-ear monitors (IEMs, or, more prosaically, fancy earbuds), the instruments will be amplified through microphones rather than pickups. The nuances of acoustic instruments are sometimes lost when routed through the amps and stage monitors you see at rock concerts or outdoor bluegrass shows. With this arrangement, the sound at the Arlington will be as realistic and pristine as you can get, the better to appreciate every fabulous note.