Bela Fleck's My Bluegrass Heart
Words by Brad Yeakel
Banjo virtuoso, Bela Fleck’s newest album, My Bluegrass Heart lives up to the unfathomably high bar set by his previous works. The album, dedicated to Chick Corea (Return to Forever, et al), and Tony Rice (The New South, etc.), is an invigorating collection of instrumentals with a staggering array of featured talent. With Fleck at the helm, everyone plays at an elevated level, and it’s obvious there are no slouches on the roster.
The first track, “Vertigo,” benefits from the added talents of Sam Bush (New Grass Revival), Bryan Sutton (Hot Rize), Stuart Duncan (Nashville Bluegrass Band), and Edgar Meyer (Goat Rodeo). The precision, speed, and complexity are immediately apparent as the album roars to life with a vivid flurry of banjo-based structure. Quickly “Vertigo” takes on the dizzying nature and breakneck pace of a bluegrass carnival ride gone rogue. The features sling hot licks on this and every other track.
“The Old North Woods” pares things back to the house band. They move fluidly through melodic passages that tickle your brain with familiarity, taunting you to place them, an early indication that the album is an instant classic. “Slippery Eel” features two of the hottest names in picking, Billy Strings and Chris Thile. The resulting insanity is tough to process. It sounds like it was recorded in the Salt Flats so they didn’t have to worry about speeding. When the music stops, Billy Strings asks Bela if the song has a name. Bela responds “Slippery Eel.” Billy responds, “it could be called ‘Holy Motherf-‘!”
“Hug Point” greets you like sunrise, slowly washing over you and encouraging you to get to it. It’s pristine tones are warm and casual. The fiddle work throughout the album fills all the gaps with a dignity and grace that helps set this apart from it’s bluegrass contemporaries. It doesn’t hurt to have the incredibly talented Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle featured. The album seems to pick up pace and careen wildly close to the edges as “Boulderdash” features Fleck’s fellow banjo spoon benders (there is no spoon!), Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny (Punch Bros) racing faster than The Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake event. (Go ahead and google it, it’s worth it.)
“Our Little Secret” has the covert, soft stepping nature of a cat burglar sneaking into a dimly lit therapist’s office to pour out his regrets. There’s a remorse in the melody, but there is also resolve not to be sad and not to get caught. The major and minor passages weave together to create movement and drama. “Round Rock” features fiddle phenom, Michael Cleveland and consummate guitarist and frequent collaborator, Jerry Douglas. Once again, I am struck by the intricacies as each melody rises and falls. The composition is remarkably detailed and executed with surgical precision.
“Baptist Pumpkin Farm” sounds like a hayride. The track stands out as having more of a rural hoedown energy than some of the others. I am swept away to long ago harvests on a breezy fiddle. Thile and Strings return for “Charm School,” and once again the chemistry would make Walter White jealous. Developing from lush serenity to volcanic fury and returning to it’s idyllic pastures, “Charm School” has the diversity and dynamics of a method actor.
“Strider” heads off with a tone that shares some timbre with a sitar. The eastern vibe continues through a rhythm that builds towards fanciful phrases and ornamentation. Eventually the tune throws on its hiking gear and starts moving at a good clip as if it can’t wait to reach the next vista. Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle bring a youthful energy and vitality that pairs with Bela’s sage-like wisdom like Miyagi and Daniel San.
“This Old Road” also spans generations of pioneering pickers. Billy Strings returns to provide support along with David Grisman on an ambitious composition that paints imagery of familiar paths through charming landscapes. “Us Chickens” references an anecdote from the early 20th century about a chicken thief claiming there was no one in the coup but “us chickens.” This piece could be an adequate score to a screenplay of the same story.
“Sour Grapes” usually refers to jealousy, but I felt no envy in this piece. The complexity of the arrangement is like a town hall in it’s conversational format. Instruments would speak up, others would respond, and the whole created a multifaceted of perspective. If real town hall meetings were this enjoyable, I’d be in the first row. “Hunky Dory” heads off like a westbound hobo, hopping trains and sipping ‘shine. This feels more like it’s about ‘getting there’ rather than wherever ‘there’ is. It’s minimal, but engaging.
The fiery breath of the “Tentacle Dragon (Revenge of the)" that erupts from a multi-limbed, mythical being is unexpected in a sense, but seems entirely appropriate at the same time. If Bela pushing boundaries is your thing, this might be the most “new-grass” track of the lot. “Bum’s Rush” has a feature list that takes longer to read than the runtime of the song. With a nearly Big Band lineup, the track takes on a bit of a showcase structure. Master after master pepper in their flavors sparingly but to great effect. It is jovial and lighter than it’s album siblings, but is no less impressive.
“Hunter’s Moon” begins with a haunting fiddle line which is greeted by a melodic line that brings Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” to mind. Soon the pair evolve into a graceful narrative dance. The emotional element is palpable. “Wheels Up” hurls itself off a ledge and races onward like the Road Runner. Hull and Tuttle once again add a shot of exuberance on the track, which bears a slight resemblance to “Camptown Races.” “Psalm 136” wraps the album up with Chris Thile and Bela playing as a duo. The track provides a coda to an incredibly rich album serving the whole as a pristine, harmonic resolution. As they say, it doesn’t get any better than this.
This review took much longer to write than most. The album clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, and each moment was exciting, inviting, impressive, and staggering in both composition and execution. It is a remarkable tribute to two musical legacies with an astounding bullpen of talent.