Béla Fleck and Punch Brothers’ “My Bluegrass Heart” tour stop at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in Greensboro, North Carolina, shimmered like new light through an old window.
All the musicianship, improvisation and authenticity you would expect from a virtuoso cast of bluegrass performers was on full display during the Dec. 13 show, but so was a glimpse of the sunny disposition and future of the string-band, roots genre.
The tour is a celebration of Fleck’s September 2021 release, My Bluegrass Heart, which won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Bluegrass Album – Fleck’s 16th trophy. My Bluegrass Heart features appearances from a number of artists including Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile. It is the third chapter in a trilogy of records that started in 1988 with Drive and The Bluegrass Sessions, which was released in 1991 and featured now-gone legends John Hartford, Vassar Clements and Earl Scruggs. After 24 years, the latest record is a 19-track, two-hour collection of non-traditional music adapted for a bluegrass band with 25 contributors.
During his 40-year career, the premiere banjo master has explored country, pop, jazz, classical and world music including studying the African origins of the instrument. With the New Grass Revival and Flecktones, he has cultivated an unsurpassed peer group of like-minded musicians including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, David Grisman, Mark O’Connor and Tony Rice, who died in 2020.
That spirit of collaboration and musical discovery was evident during the Greensboro concert stop. Joining Fleck were next-gen superstars Michael Cleveland on fiddle, former Punch Brother Bryan Sutton on guitar, bassist Mark Schatz, Sierra Hull on mandolin and Hull’s husband, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses (dobro, banjo, guitar).
The tradition of sharing music intergenerationally is central to bluegrass music and the respect and interplay between the performers was palpable and genuine.
The performers took the sparse stage with zero fanfare. The stage had a black backdrop and a light set up that never flickered. A long table with a black tablecloth served as a banjo buffet for Fleck’s instruments. But the lack of bells and whistles didn’t equal a deficiency of sound.
The Tanger Center, which has a 3,000-capacity and opened in November 2021, was made for acoustic performances with pristine sound throughout the venue. According to Scott Johnson, deputy director of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, which includes the Tanger Center, the venue “was designed to host touring Broadway productions and concert events” with LED lighting and a new D&B touring line array sound system.
In the audience as a guest was lighting designer/director Ted Atwell, who worked with Fleck from 2001 to 2007 and is now with audio visual supply company SE Systems based in Greensboro.
“Just to listen to him play is one of the most pleasant sounds I’ve ever heard,” Atwell said. “He is one of the kindest, gentlest people you will ever meet in your lifetime.”
Atwell, who toured with Fleck around the world, said it’s not surprising that he would nurture the careers of up-and-coming musicians on tour. “That naturally occurs across the board,” he said. “Not just with Béla Fleck but throughout the bluegrass industry, which is going more Americana and becoming more progressive. If these up-and-coming artists are good, the older generation of artists is going to accept them no matter what.”
Fleck has a lot of experience to draw from. According to Pollstar box office reports, he has sold more than 785,000 tickets with a total gross of $23.5 million over the course of 695 reported shows dating back to 1989.
The setlist in Greensboro drew heavily from the record and started with “Strider,” followed by “Hug Point” and “Vertigo” before veering slightly into The Stanley Brothers “Bound to Ride.”
Fleck then dedicated “Our Little Secret” to Tony Rice and Chick Corea. Fleck toured with Corea and the jazz legend’s seminal My Spanish Heart inspired the title of Fleck’s latest outing. It was followed by “Big Country.”
A playful Fleck joked “We need more banjo,” which was Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers’ cue to join the band for “Boulderdash.” Fleck added: “Twice as good as what we had going before.”
Thoughts were more commonly communicated in melody than verse until the Bryan Sutton-penned “Time Has Come,” which urges people to regain common ground rather than “losing touch and losing lives.”
Stage banter was at a minimum mostly in service to the songs, but then Fleck couldn’t help himself: “Let’s go into this next one without saying anything. I think that would be really effective.” The crowd laughed along and the band soared with “Slippery Eel.”
After Fleck called for reinforcements, Punch Brothers Chris Thile (mandolin) and Gabe Witcher (fiddle) joined for “Hunter’s Moon” and Witcher was joined by Paul Kowert (bass) for “Baptist Pumpkin Farm,” which gave Schatz an opportunity show off his tapping form – the closest thing to a percussion solo all night.
Trading smiles and licks, Fleck said, “I was hoping it would be you guys.”
The ensemble ended with “On My Way Back to the Old Home” and “Whitewater.” But the crowd wasn’t ready to let go and after a brief break, Fleck and Thile returned for the encore everyone had been waiting for, a breathtaking version of “Psalm 136,” which was inspired by Fleck’s studies in Uganda.
Both bands joined forces for “Texas Red” and “Rye Whiskey” before a seasonal send-off “Sleigh Ride.”
The audience was breathless. After seeing Punch Brothers for the first time, Mark DeYoung, 55 of Greensboro, gushed, “One of the best performances I’ve ever seen live. The greatest example of live syncopation, chord progression, time signatures. Greatest night of music by far.”
Lighting designer/director Ted Atwell summed it up this way: “smart music.”