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May 20, 2003

Summer Breeze shows that variety is the spice of life

This past Saturday, Voices dispatched intrepid reporters Vincent and Andy to cover the evening's Summer Breeze concert. This year's event featured the formidable lineup of Chicago pop-punkers OK Go, Brooklyn progressive rapper Talib Kweli, and Venus's own Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. While our courageous journalists did not always agree on the finer points of the performances, Andy is forever indebted to Vincent, as he was the only one who could cover OK Go and Talib Kweli while Andy was stuck in traffic on the way back from a baseball game in Milwaukee. Go Brewers!

Vincent: The sound crew set up their stuff and the show actually got started on time at six. OK Go played. Talib Kweli rapped. All of this indicates that Summer Breeze was not a rock show, or at least not a regular one.

OK Go pumped out happy pop tunes that felt like caramel falling from the sky, blanketing Hutch Courtyard with sweetness. The band was infectiously happy and the keyboardist banged on the tom-tom in a showy way that was reminiscent of Postal Service. They sang songs and people sang along. It's a nice fuzzy feeling to have people sing along. But some of the audience didn't share that feeling. You know when you go to math at 9:30 on a Monday morning after all the hangovers and such, and the teacher tries really hard to say something, anything, that might get a response from the class, and you look around and realize that everybody has their faces fixed into a contortion of fatigue and intense blankness? OK Go fought the weekend version of this face.

There were some very excited crowd members who jumped up and down to all their songs, and attempted to dance on the ledge of the fountain, despite the fact that they were forbidden to do so. There was the lovely, not-so-lesbian-but-just-might-be couple who ran up to the stage, hand-in-hand, on the band's request, so that they could slow dance to a love song that the band modified to be about a lesbian couple instead of a straight one. The rest of the audience sat on the grass, watching the show in a phenomenally nice atmosphere reminiscent of a Sunday picnic in perfect weather.

This state of relaxation eventually began to erode: by the time Talib Kweli came on after half an hour of setting up turntables and two mics, people were hollering. But the looks on the audience's faces transformed quickly. Any iciness that was left over melted. Physics profs would be proud of the time-tested truth of kinetic energy. The audience was excited, they warmed up, the people danced, screamed at the top of their lungs, and most importantly, waved their hands in the air.

The audience surrendered to Talib Kweli, his DJ, and his Chicagoan friend who joined him on stage. Somebody gave him a demo, the picnic atmosphere gave way to night, and the crowd trampled over the sitting space. Talib Kweli reminded us of his name repeatedly, told us that he loved us, and commanded us over and over to wave our hands and cheer. Please don't fall asleep. Save that for later when jam band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones come out. It is then that you can complain their set was too long and irritating and get pissed off and leave early because they played for an hour-and-a-half.

Andy: Thanks, Vincent. But obviously you didn't stick around to experience the giddy wonder that was Bela Fleck and his Flecktones. Having previously heard just one song of the band's from the Maroon's computer library, I didn't really know what to expect. Just some rumors about a banjo and a guy they call Future Man. But, of course, that doesn't even begin to tell the story, as I would find out after Talib Kweli's set.

The band took the stage like the seasoned veterans that they are, emerging out of the shadows of backstage, with instruments already slung around respective necks. They struck me as a quirkier Dave Matthews Band, partly because of their diverse line-up: two black guys and two white guys. Although the members of DMB are all skilled musicians, the Flecktones occupy a significantly higher plane of musicianship. They are a jam band at heart, splicing the skeletons of their songs into extended solos that put flesh on the bones, and allow each band member to show off his prodigious talent. And they do it all without the sappy lyrics inherent in many a Dave Matthews song.

In fact, a vast majority of the songs they played didn't feature lyrics at all, with only an occasional tune flavored with the soulful voice of Future Man. Instead, the audience was left to nod their heads or dance in place to the meandering jams, which would often begin with a few bars played by banjoist Fleck or bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten. The songs were anchored by Wooten's brother Future Man (Roy Wooten), who played the drums, as well as an instrument of his own creation, the Drumitar, which is essentially a drum machine in the shape of a guitar. Added to this mix was multi-reed-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, who impressed with his mastery of various saxophones. Harmonica player and original Flecktone Howard Levy made an occasional cameo during the band's set.

Each of the Flecktones is a distinct character in both sound and appearance. Banjo player/deity Fleck played the part of reluctant bandleader, looking less than conspicuous with his scruffy hair and unassuming wardrobe. The dreadlocked Wooten, considered by many to be the premier electric bass player in the world, awed the crowd with his innovative playing style. The bald-headed, bespectacled Coffin, introduced by Wooten as the "man who likes to wear his hair upside-down" due to his lengthy goatee, at one point played two saxophones at once. Future Man carried himself with a style all his own, sporting a wardrobe as loud as his drum playing.

Though all are wonderful musicians in their own right, the Flecktones certainly add up to more than the sum of their parts, as they have honed their distinctive "blu-bop" sound over the course of over 13 years and eight albums. They let their music do the talking, as extended jam flowed into extended jam, with little vocal exchange between the band and the awed crowd. But who could want for more when the musicianship was as tight as it was? Huh, Vincent?

Vincent: Cool your jets, kid. Anyway, right afterward, in the Reynolds Club south lounge, the madcats of Astomatous, IQ32, and Cold Heaven played the logical progression to Bela Fleck: death metal. Astomatous plays brain-hurting death metal because its drummer is just so rocking. The band's quality was just as good, if not better than your average Fireside Bowl show, which means it was, at the very least, amazing. IQ32 followed with its rabid spittings, and everybody in the lounge tried very hard to continue the spirit of Summer Breeze. Cold Heaven finished off the show with its deathly outlook, which made us so happy we got into fights for the rest of the night.

Andy: Ah, death metal. Vincent...you sure know how to have a good time! However, I suppose it was just the logical next step from a Summer Breeze unlike any other. Now where did my Brewers cap go?