The concept is simple: Put a droll, middle-aged guy with a banjo on his knee in command of the legendary stage where John Lennon, Bono, Bruce and Jimi rocked the world.
For the artistic director of the Colorado Symphony, booking Béla Fleck as a Red Rocks headliner for the first time makes perfect, only-in-Colorado sense.
The way Chief Artistic Officer at the Colorado Symphony, Tony Pierce, sees it, everyone will be there. The diehard bluegrass and jam rock fans love Fleck along with classical music aficionados and folk music folks. Fleck has created a uniquely large tent over the past three decades and has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy-award history.
The many worlds of Béla Fleck converge May 30 in a celebration orchestrated by the Colorado Symphony. The cast will include Fleck’s wife, stellar clawhammer banjoist and vocalist Abigail Washburn, dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, plus a super-sized version of the Flecktones.
The Denver-based symphony will be led by conductor Scott O’Neill, who has held the baton for the banjoist’s many orchestral explorations, including a ground-breaking gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and recording his orchestral works.
“All of these musicians are the same kind of talent we see when we hire a guest who is a world class singer or violinist,” Pierce says. “Their playing is so effortless. They’re living legends.”
Just another banjo player from New York
For those who don’t know him, the New York City-raised Fleck recorded his first solo album at 19 with a young Jerry Douglas.
“Béla has put himself in some really different places for a banjo player over the years,” Douglas says. In 1981, Fleck joined the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival led by Sam Bush. With Douglas, Bush, Edgar Meyer and Marc O’Connor, he was a member of the groundbreaking instrumental group Strength in Numbers. His bluegrass-jazz hybrid, the Flecktones, launched in the late ’80s, and he made his classical debut in 2001. That doesn’t include his many collaborations with world musicians ranging from Bruce Hornsby to Toumani Diabaté.
“Béla has done more for and with his instrument than anyone who has ever played it. Nobody else on Earth can pull that off,” says Douglas, who is credited with reinventing the twangy resophonic guitar.
Douglas recalls the first time the bluegrass musicians recorded together. “Béla wanted to do this tune ‘Spain’ by Chick Corea and Return to Forever. That was interesting,” Douglas says.
The two have been friends for 35 years, and for a while, even next-door neighbors near Nashville. Douglas has won 14 Grammys, played on more than 1,500 albums, and is a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station and leader of Jerry Douglas Presents the Earls of Leicester.
“Béla thinks further outside the box musically than even I do,” Douglas says. “I was just in the studio with him. I looked at the music he had for me and I said: ‘I don’t know if know how to play this.’ He had to explain it because he had this musical idea in his head. When I finally listened to all the parts together I could hear it.”
Pierce of the Colorado Symphony agrees that working with Fleck is always a positive challenge. “It’s not easy — this is tough, tricky stuff that Béla writes. The orchestra’s excited about playing with these guys. It’s fun but it’s not like a one-rehearsal-and-go-to-the-concert-hall thing,” he says.
One night only: The best of Béla
The May 30 show is not part of a tour, just a one-time-only event for 10,000 lucky attendees. It’s at Red Rocks because Colorado has been virtually a second home for these musicians over the past 30-plus years.
“Colorado has had its arms open for all of us right from the start,” Douglas says. Fleck and Douglas return in less than a month for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“The audience is going to get to see all the parts of Béla on one stage. This is as close as you can get to having everyone in his whole orbit in one place for three hours,” Douglas says. He, Fleck and Washburn will explore the acoustic, bluegrass side of the repertoire.
This concert will be the first time the Flecktones have performed with an orchestra. They will be joined by onetime Flecktones saxophonist Jeff Coffin, now a member of the Dave Matthews Band.
The orchestra will back Fleck in playing movements from his concertos as well as getting its star moment performing “big” lively pieces by Bernstein, Shostakovich and others, Pierce says.
“There is no other show we’ll do this year that comes closer to fulfilling our central mission as an arts organization,” he says. “To reach out to new communities.”
John Lehndorff has written about Colorado music for numerous publications since the late 1970s including Bluegrass Unlimited and Sensi Magazine.
ON THE BILL: Bela Fleck — with the Colorado Symphony, the Flecktones, Jerry Douglas and Abigail Washburn. 7:30 p.m. May 30, Red Rocks Amphitheater, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison. Tickets: axs.com
8 Essential Bela Fleck Albums
• ‘Drive’ (Rounder)
• ‘The Telluride Sessions,’ Strength in Numbers (MCA)
• ‘Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ (Warner Bros.)
• ‘The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol.2’ (Rounder)
• ‘Perpetual Motion’ (Sony Classical)
• ‘Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions’ (Rounder)
• ‘Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn’ (Rounder)
• ‘Juno Concerto’ with the Colorado Symphony (Rounder)