Concert Review: Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart at the Groton Hill Music Center

By Glenn Rifkin

You can’t appreciate Béla Fleck’s virtuosity until you see him up close and live. I left the hall stunned by the two-and-half-hour master class in bluegrass innovation.

Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart at the Groton Hill Music Center on August 5

Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart. Photo: courtesy of the artist

When Béla Fleck took the stage on Saturday night with his band, My Bluegrass Heart, at the sold out Groton Hill Music Center’s concert hall, the audience was filled with Fleck fans who knew something special was likely to be in store.

I was excited because I had never seen Fleck in concert and I’d never paid close enough attention to understand the man’s genius. Béla Fleck, I knew, was more than just a banjo player. He was an elite musical visionary whose remarkable talent and boundless curiosity took him and his banjo across a wide and diverse musical universe. But you can’t appreciate the man’s virtuosity until you see him up close and live. I left the hall stunned by the two-and-half-hour master class in bluegrass innovation.

Fleck has won 15 Grammy awards for nine different genres — including country, pop, jazz, classical, instrumental, and world music. He was as likely to team up with the likes of Chick Corea as a group of musicians in a remote Ugandan village. He played with symphony orchestras and his breakout band, The Flecktones, and never encountered a genre that didn’t entice him. In his hands, the banjo became something more than a musical instrument; it was a bridge across styles and cultures and tastes.

At Groton Hill, I was in for a treat. Returning to his bluegrass roots for the first time in 24 years, Fleck brought along his My Bluegrass Heart band, an all-star lineup of talent that has spent the past two years touring and recording an album with Fleck. Every member of the group has soaring bona fides and the set list was created to let everyone demonstrate mind-blowing skill. Fleck displayed both generosity and wisdom in spreading the wealth throughout the show.

Joining Fleck was Sierra Hull, one of the world’s premier mandolin players; her husband Justin Moses, a versatile talent who plays the dojo, fiddle, and banjo as well as sings; Bryan Sutton, a brilliant flat picker who calls to mind legends like Doc Watson, and has been a sought-after session player for a who’s who of stars; Mark Schatz, a bassist whose ties to Fleck go back to the ’70s, who can dance, do hambone, and soar on the bass.

And last but hardly least: Michael Cleveland, the 42-year-old Grammy winning fiddler, who was born blind, lost 80 percent of his hearing in one ear, and nonetheless was a child prodigy who began playing the violin at age four and was performing at the Grand Old Opry in his teens. He has won Fiddle Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Awards an astounding 11 times. And, on this night, his stunning work on the fiddle drew roars of approval throughout the show.

Throughout the two sets, the band never missed a note and offered a variety of bluegrass styles, from Bill Monroe’s Rocky Road to Fleck’s own inspiring composition,”Big Country.”  Most of the offerings had a jam band feel, with each player soloing and Fleck jumping in with his “admittedly angular and sometimes complex form of bluegrass,” as he puts it.  His superlative fingering can reach dissonant levels but inevitably turns back to a song’s melodic structure.

Inspired to pick up the banjo at age 15 after hearing Flatt and Scruggs’s theme song for the ’60s TV series The Beverly Hillbillies, Fleck inevitably winds his way back to bluegrass’s crowd-pleasing roots. The sets featured tunes from the band’s 2021 My Bluegrass Heart CD, including “Charm School,””Vertigo,” “Our Little Secret,” “Hunter’s Moon,” and “Psalm 136,” a haunting duet he played with Hull as they sashayed around the stage.

Saving perhaps the best for last, they treated the joyous crowd to an encore of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a bluegrass-tinted version of the classic piece that was simply mesmerizing. Needless to say, Gershwin would have likely been as blown away as the audience with Fleck’s magical take on a masterpiece.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including the New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for the Arts Fuse. His book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was published by McGraw-Hill.

1 Comment

  1. Lorna Fredd on August 6, 2023 at 6:54 pm

    We saw Béla several years ago at the Savannah Music Festival and loved him. But last night, with his ensemble of supremely accomplished artists who also have music in their souls and bones, was truly special. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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