Live Review: Bela Fleck & Band, Cadogan Hall, London – 4th February 2024

Photo: J. Aird

The purchase of the ticket for this event was concluded within 3 minutes of them going on sale back in August of last year. Why the hurry?  Well the simple answer is – it’s Bela Fleck, and we haven’t seen him in the UK since the 2020 all banjo tour with Abigail Washburn.  Add in that this was heralded as a Bluegrass tour – since the promoted album is ‘My Bluegrass Heart‘ and recalling that it is a long time indeed since Bluegrass was at the forefront of Bela Fleck’s attention – then this rare appearance went from highly interesting to essential.  What it would reveal itself to be – and Bela Fleck at one point in the gig noted that there are “two kinds of Bluegrass, the traditional and the other” before playing a tune that was definitely under the “other” heading – remained to be heard. But, hey, it’s Bela Fleck.

The 6:30 PM stage time – coupled with the continuing train strikes, now entering into their third calendar year showing a remarkable lack of negotiating skill from a succession of transport ministers from the laughably self-identifying party of business – made for an arriving on-time challenge that was just met. Luckily the band were a few minutes behind time, taking the stage one at a time until the full six piece was present.  And what a band – as well as Bela Fleck, of course, there was on upright bass Mark Schatz, flat picked guitar Bryan Sutton, Justin Moses on Dobro, second fiddle and second banjo, Sierra Hull on mandolin, and quite sensationally fiddler Michael Cleveland.

There followed, across two sets, a spectacular display of musicianship and a full definition of modern Bluegrass – the majority of the music performed was a long way from your grandpa’s bluegrass, with few hummable melodies, and timings that could change dramatically rather than a steady, danceable, time signature.  And we’re talking predominantly instrumental music  – Fleck is not known for his lyrics.  Whilst it’s true that everything got underway with an old tune – ‘Blue Mountain‘ from the ‘Bluegrass Sessions’ album – we were still a long way from the more traditional Bluegrass material of albums like ‘Drive‘ or ‘Crossing the Tracks.‘ What we did have was a display of dazzlingly fast playing as one after another of the band members took the lead – Sierra Hull is an unbelievably dextrous mandolin player and Michael Cleveland blended in a distinctive and very traditional fiddle sound, no easy task with the excursions that Fleck was driving the band down.  Between song stage talk leant itself to the gently humorous with Fleck indicating a need to take it easy after a couple of particularly fast pieces of music and then, of course, launching into something faster.  The first set closed out with a piece from Fleck’s newest recording, the title track ‘Rhapsody In Blue‘ starting recognizably as Gershwin’s music and then taking a long, winding and exhilarating excursion that touched again here and there on the original melody.

The second set launched with a delicate duet on ‘Psalm 136‘ with alternate leads traded between Sierra Hull and Fleck, with the rest of the band still off-stage.  Next up was a real piece of wizardry, with Fleck predominantly using a banjo with a set of string tuner pegs to create the sound for ‘Strider‘ by continually tuning up and down.  This is thrilling playing – and the incredibly fast ‘Slippery Eel‘ was equally so with notes flashing out from all the high fret positions on the banjo whilst Bryan Sutton flat picked the deuce out of his guitar with Michael Cleveland playing up a storm on the fiddle.  This was some piece of ensemble playing.

The second set saw a couple of sung interludes threaded with Bryan Sutton presenting his song ‘Time Has Come‘, a plea for a coming together to heal a fractured society, and Justin Moses and Sierra Hull providing vocals for ‘I’m On My Back To The Old Home‘, the Bill Monroe song offering a taste of the bouncy, hummable, traditional Bluegrass as contrast to the way beyond Newgrass that made up the majority of the evening.  Balance – it was all about balance really. The band balancing each other and everyone still getting plenty of room to solo.  And having fun with it as well – a jokey aside about the number of Grammys particular band members were up for that night all part of some good natured leg-pulling.  It was music so good that the two hours of stage time simply flew by – to the extent that Bela had to remind Michael that they had a curfew when one jest extended a little longer than originally planned.  Fortunately there was time for a very decent and lengthy encore before the band finally left to a standing ovation as the hall lights went up.  What a night.

On a note of factual veracity – Cadogan Hall has a strict no-photography policy, and so the banner image for this review is actually from an appearance at The Barbican in 2020.  In true Bluegrass manner, Bela, in fact, remained standing throughout this gig .  Rather like us all, he’s a little greyer, and is also now sporting a slight beard – but he was wearing the same jacket.

About Jonathan Aird 2755 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Jeremy Courtnadge

Great review. Thanks. I got my ticket fairly late but it was the best decision. This was a show that will stay with me forever. If I had a bucket list this would have been on it. A word for Justin Moses. He flies mostly under the radar, especially compared to the others on the stage, but he can play anything with strings as well as the next person and his voice is perfect for Bluegrass.

Richard Parkinson

It was a great show and it’s always nice it read a review which reads like it comes from the one i attended. Someone a couple of rows in front of me videoed a whole tune without being disturbed by the stewards so I figured I could get a snap or two.