An amalgam of pure instrumental brilliance erupted on March 30 at Lucas Theatre when banjo player Béla Fleck, bassist and composer Edgar Meyer and tabla drummer Zakir Hussain teamed together to unite their unique musical styles.
Greeted with booming applause, the three musicians walked casually along the stage to their instruments, waving and smiling cheerfully at the packed audience.
The trio settled into their groove the minute they started playing, as dozens of heads in the audience started bobbing up and down, toes began tapping and knees rose and fell rhythmically to the beat.
Meyer swerved sensually around his bass as if he were engaged in a waltz. Each caress of the strings was executed with intimate attention, like that of a man wooing his lover. He danced with his bass, his hips, shoulders and knees all gyrating in slow waves. His bass evoked the deep sounds of the cello as well as the high song of the viola.
The only way to describe Hussain’s interaction with his drums was that it was incredibly natural. Each beat seemed to seep from his soul, as though it was as normal an activity for him as breathing. His sense of speed and timing was at times suggestive of drummer Neil Peart—he never lost momentum as the audience watched expectantly, out of breath and infatuated. Hussain masterfully manipulated his drums to cover a wide range of genres, from African tribal beats to Indian pulses. At one point his drums sounded almost like beat boxing.
Fleck was not an equal partner or a lover with his banjo, but instead a god or a master manipulator, creating whatever sounds fit his mood. In one instance it was similar to Beverly Hillbilly bluegrass which he was inspired by, at the next it carried the sweeping Celtic notes of the Highlands, and then suddenly it would echo like an Elizabethan harpsichord. At times, paired with the drums, his banjo seemed to transform into a sitar which is understandable, considering Hussain toured with renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar for his very first concert.
Although there were only three instruments, there was no shortage of sound. Each vibration resonated clearly through the ears to the mind and soul, sending a delighted shiver into the shoulders. You could almost see the deep, heavy notes of the bass floating over the audience as their shoulders relaxed and dropped, their facial muscles loosened, and their eyes glazed over in dreamy lucidity.
This sense of naturalness was perhaps the main impression left from the show. Each song lacked the strict, structured sound of the rehearsed and planned. The trio seemed to require no effort or even thought, just pure, concentrated emotion oozing through the strings or skins.
The band’s jovial, familiar attitude fostered the intimate feeling that the audience was watching a private jam session. The sense of camaraderie and easy informality gave the impression that Fleck, Meyer and Hussain had been playing together since they were children, even though they only started performing together a few years ago.
Each musician was laid-back and low-key. There was no sense of pretension and it’s clear that their international fame has not gone to their heads. They poked fun at each other and joked with the audience between songs in quiet, unassuming voices. To put it frankly, they simply created good vibes.
The music was primal and basic, and yet refined and sophisticated. At one moment the audience was an African tribe hopping in the jungle, during others they were English genteel waltzing at a royal ball, and then suddenly they were engaged in a hoedown in Mississippi.
The diversity in range and style was staggering. A song would open sad, haunting and delicate, then suddenly it would turn upbeat and optimistic. The music seemed to create curves, dives, unexpected turns and jumps through the air. The subtle nuances in transition built or softly receded, creating at times such sounds as birds singing, frogs thumping, or even bones cracking.
At the close of the two hour show, the trio was applauded with a standing ovation and calls for an encore. Fleck, Meyer and Hussain happily obliged and immediately started swaying, tapping, or nodding to the beat. It was clear that the audience wasn’t the only ones having a good time.
From the first note to the last, they demonstrated amazing precision. They never missed a beat or hit the wrong note and, if they did, the audience never knew the difference.Contact Mary E. Mueller.