LIVE REVIEW: Béla Fleck in Groton, MA (08.05.23)
On a recent Saturday night, I marked my 54th birthday with another concert at Groton Hill Music Center in Groton, MA. The legendary Béla Fleck stopped in Groton on August 5 for the My Bluegrass Heart tour. This is his first bluegrass tour in 24 years. The Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart album is the third part of a trilogy that began with the 1988 album Drive and was followed by 1991 album The Bluegrass Sessions. I’m mostly an indie/alternative music critic and fan and certainly know little about bluegrass. However, I know (and appreciate) talent and good music. This show brought together an impressive group of musicians. They were all truly enjoying their time playing.
For this tour, Fleck’s band includes vocalist and mandolinist Sierra Hull, fiddler Michael Cleveland, bassist Mark Schatz, multi-instrumentalist and Hull’s husband Justin Moses (dobro, mandolin, fiddle, banjo) and guitarist Bryan Sutton. Fleck and Schatz were in a Boston bluegrass band called Tasty Licks in the late 70s. A New York City native, Fleck lived in Boston for a short time in his 20s before moving to Nashville.
These musicians played with a focused precision. They have a fierce respect for each other and camaraderie but could also joke around. It was more or less a two and a half hour jam session. They complemented each other so well and effortlessly played off each other. Young mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull nearly stole the show with her toe tapping and vibrant flair. She’s so comfortable and dynamic. It was hard to take your eyes off her. At one point someone in the audience called out, “You go girl!” We were all charmed. Blind fiddler Cleveland is amazing and earned the most cheers and applause. Fleck remains mostly still. He’s mellow and not very talkative. He plays with a quiet confidence and ease. He’s the kind of guy who likes to collaborate and to give others a chance to shine and thrive. He’s not concerned about being upstaged by anyone because in the end it’s Bela Fleck that the audience came to see and who has won the awards and accolades over the years. Everyone admires him for good reason. He’s a treasure.
Fleck has won 15 Grammys and in 2020, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Years ago I saw Throw Down Your Heart and was quite impressed with the banjo player. If you haven’t seen the documentary, I highly recommend it. Bela Fleck travels around Africa to learn about the banjo’s origins. It’s fascinating.
I particularly enjoyed high energy, double banjo “Boulderdash,” gorgeous “The Over Grown Waltz,” melancholy and cinematic “Our Little Secret,” lovely “Psalm 136” and darkly emotive “Hunter’s Moon.”
Groton Hill Music Center was the ideal venue. It’s simultaneously intimate and grand —it seats 1000– with phenomenal acoustics.