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MUSIC / BELA FLECK & THE FLECKTONES : Banjo Picker Plus : Anaconda audience will experience an eclectic combination of jazz, World Beat, bluegrass and funk.


This interview was completed when Bela Fleck called between rehearsals for "The Tonight Show" last Friday. Naturally, the big question is, do they give you free beer and food while you're hanging around the studio?

"Well, let's see," said Fleck, "we've got water, mineral water, juice, coffee, a fruit bowl sort of thing, but no beer. I guess they don't want us to get buzzed before we go on. It's our fourth time on the show, but the first time since the new regime, and we just got to meet Jay Leno. We didn't get to meet Johnny Carson until the last time we were on. They keep him secluded in his own room, away from everybody else. He'd give us a thumbs up or something when he'd see us, but we never did talk to him until the last time."

Trying to figure out Fleck is even tougher than making Carson buy the beer or making Paula Abdul dance with the Predator in a soft drink commercial. He's a banjo player that leads a jazz band, which sounds about as weird as Guns 'N Roses doing a Lawrence Welk set. The band's new album, monikered "UFO TOFU," just came out a few weeks ago. The quartet's eclectic combination of jazz, World Beat, bluegrass and funk has resulted in three Grammy nominations, three albums, and for our purposes, three appearances at the Anaconda Theater in Isla Vista this year. Next time: Friday night.

"It's a fun place, a cool bar," said Fleck, unaware that the Anaconda lost its liquor license. "It's becoming more of a concert-type setting, and we had a great crowd last time. We've had a significant increase in the Deadhead population, especially since we opened for the Dead on New Year's Eve. We also attract all different kinds of people co-existing happily. We get jazz fans, blues fans, bluegrass fans, fusion people--it's an all ages thing."

Besides Bela (named after Bartok, not Lugosi), the Flecktones include Howard Levy on harmonicas and keyboards and the Wooten brothers (the guys in the cool hats), Victor on bass and Future Man on percussion. Victor became a Flecktone after auditioning over the phone. Tight musicianship, endless solos--how do they know when to stop at the same time?

"We're just so many flavors mixed together," said Fleck. "We're not in this for the beer and the babes; it's more of a holy quest. We're trying to do something that means something, and make a living. The issue is not the money; we're a young band just starting to make a living."

And how about that thing the Future Man plays? It's called a synth-axe drumitar. That means he's the drummer, but he doesn't sit down.

"It's a really cool instrument, originally made for playing the synthesizer with a guitar body," said Fleck. "The Future Man has turned it into a drum--it's really something."

Fleck, who grew up in New York City, began picking the banjo when he was 15 years old. Besides the usual favorites such as "Dueling Banjos" from "Deliverance" and the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies," Fleck taught himself to play Beatles songs, Led Zeppelin songs and Yes music on the banjo. Next, Fleck spent eight years with New Grass Revival, those roots music experimentalists out of Nashville. They had something the Flecktones don't have, a vocalist to pay.

"Well, I sang background harmonies with those guys, and singing is a physical pleasure, but I don't really miss it," Fleck said. "Also, I certainly was a road dog before the Flecktones. New Grass Revival was a very hard-working band for eight years, and when I started this band, I was already able to draw a crowd. Now we know where all the health food places are. We can find a smoothie at 100 paces."

Fleck has had his share of strange gigs lately, apart from the Grateful Dead, which pretty much set the standard for "strange." He played banjo on stage with Spinal Tap in Nashville recently. And how about that State Department? In the late 1980s, instead of sending guns, bombs and spies to Third World nations, they sent New Grass Revival on a tour of Morocco, India and Nepal.

"That was fun," Fleck said. "In Nepal, they make you play their national anthem before every gig. So they hand us this song right before we go on stage, and no one can read it too well--it was obviously written by someone outside of Nepal. But we did it."

Now experienced practitioners of fracturing national anthems, the Flecktones did their interpretation of the "Star-Spangled Banner" on their last album, not quite as spacey as the Jimi Hendrix version, but certain to make the Final Four nonetheless.

"We've never played it at a sporting event or anything, but we played it at Martin Luther King Day in Atlanta," Fleck said. "We'll play it on July 4 probably, but we just have so much new music, it's not part of our set. We could play two nights and never repeat a song."

The first two albums had Beatles songs on them--"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Michelle"--but the streak ended on the new one.

Fleck probably doesn't need any more Beatles' songs, and Michael Jackson sure doesn't need any more money. The Flecktones have their fair share of songs with goofy titles that they wrote--"Bonnie & Slyde," "The Yee-haw Factor," "Flying Saucer Dudes," and "Jekyll and Hyde (And Ted and Alice)."

There will be no opening act to be fashionably late for: The Flecktones will do about a 2 1/2-hour set beginning about 9 p.m.

"We like performing, playing for human beings," Fleck said.


Bela Fleck & the Flecktones at the Anaconda Theater, 935 Embarcadero del Norte, Isla Vista, 985-3112. Friday night, $14.50. Doors open at 8:30, show time about 9 p.m. No opening act.

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