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Bela Fleck & The Flecktones - The Hidden Land Review
By Dan Upton

In case you've been living under a rock for about the last 20 years, or maybe are just oblivious to things like jazz and bluegrass, the Flecktones could use a little introduction. Formed in 1998, they've performed an unlikely combination of bluegrass and jazz fusion sometimes termed "blu-bop" and spend large amounts of time touring including stints with various jam bands. In 2005 the band took a hiatus where all of the members worked with side/solo projects and Béla took a trip to Africa. Their 9th release (not counting live sets), The Hidden Land, reins in things a little bit compared to their previous offering, 2003's three-disc set Little Worlds.

Before getting into the actual meat of the music, I watched the DualDisc DVD footage which contains a short film called "Bring It Home." Some of the parts of the video are obviously a joke; for instance, Big Foot coming up and knocking on Béla's door, only to be turned away from his lesson, or the band sending Jeff Coffin out into the middle of a field for rehearsal so as not to be overpowered by his baritone sax. On the other hand, they say Victor Wooten hasn't been speaking for a while, and he spends the first half of the video communicating only via writing on a whiteboard. While some of the introduction is entertaining, the real gem of the DVD part is video at a jazz workshop including some question-and-answer and live performances of "Over the Wall," the intro to "Puffy," and "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie." Just a word of caution about DualDiscs though, the CD side doesn't conform to the CD audio standard and won't always play. For instance, none of the computers I tried were able to play it; fortunately, the DVD side also includes stereo and 5.1 surround versions of the CD. If you can play the CD side of the DualDisc, or don't mind listening to it through a DVD player, the live performance is definitely worth the price to upgrade.

The CD opens with a Bach fugue, which I imagine sounds somewhat different than Bach ever imagined when played on banjo and sax. This leads into "P'lod in the House," which percussionist Future Man explained was about the alien who shakes the hand of the winning presidential candidate on the cover of tabloids. This song marks one end of the spectrum of the CD's tonal palette, with Béla's typical electric banjo tone and a wild, rather unconstrained free jazz jam in the middle. On the other end of the spectrum is "Labyrinth," a moody, atmospheric piece with a twangy piezo guitar and background vocals and scat singing by Future Man. Some other standouts are the Brazilian-influenced "Rococo," the interesting, out-there harmonies of "Who's Got Three?" and "Weed Wacker," with a long smooth solo section that transitions first into bluegrass-style banjo rolls and then into an upbeat, wah-drenched groove.

So what's the verdict? If you're a fan of all things Flecktones, you probably already have this, and if not, you should stop reading immediately and go buy it. People turned off by the sprawling, little-bit-of-everything nature of Little Worlds should give this a try too, as it's somewhat more accessible while still completely retaining everything that's great about the Flecktones. And for anybody sitting quietly on the sidelines, this wouldn't be a bad introduction. In short, if you have any interest at all in creative, exploratory instrumental music, you should check this out.

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