The Wooten Brothers spin the rarest grooves

by Ryan Snyder

Their credentials are as unassailable as they come, but the Wooten Brothers still collectively cite a pretty standard list of ’60s and ’70s funk, rock and jazz among their chief influences. It’s impossible to know how many legions of bar bands, margin dwellers and chart toppers have been directly galvanized by the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Led Zeppelin and James Brown. It is practically assured, however, that few, if any, channel it the way that Regi, Roy, Joseph and Victor Wooten do on the uncommon occasion they share a stage together.

The four brothers — comprising half of jazz-fusion greats Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Steve Miller’s longest tenured sideman, and the eldest brother who put instruments in all their hands — might have gone on to great renown as a family act were it not for a myopic record exec wiping away Victor’s contributions to their one stab at the pop charts. Instead, the Wooten Brothers first ever headlining tour was partly a stopgap for the Flecktones hiatus, but also a way to show audiences a little bit of what could have been.

As a standalone, their nearly threehour set at Ziggy’s on Dec. 10 (initially postponed from two days earlier due to weather) felt most like a bilateral indulgence. Together, the Wootens take a deconstructivist approach to their influences. What seemed at times to be controlled chaos were clandestine lessons in theory. They broke down James Brown’s “Sex Machine” to its bare bones, isolating and reintegrating guitar and bass parts, as if to reveal how the gears of funk fit together to generate the cycloid motion of dance. They turned what began as a simple enough cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” into a matryoshka doll of extracurricular teases, both oblique and imminently recognizable. The “Purple Haze” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” references they couched within were easy enough to pick out, but Joseph probably intended to go over a few heads when he slipped in Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”

Of course, their interpretations of classic cuts rarely came in for a clean landing. That mutated “Kashmir” cover eventually found new life as a “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which itself disintegrated into a maze of fret board grinding and crooked drum fills. In their wide oeuvre of tricks, Victor and Regi’s two-handed tap-off on one another’s guitars were the most un-duplicable. Then there were the times that the Wootens were obviously just having fun. The idiosyncrasies that earned Roy the nickname “Futureman” were as well represented by his eight-armed solo of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” as they were in his drum kit setup itself (example: the bass drum turned on its side like a giant floor tom). Regi in particular to took added (if not aberrant) joy in the 400 or so jaws left agape at his interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” a dotted page of rests, stutters and bends that climaxed in him saying, “Just playing with you, Jimi.”

Within the current of their performance, such interstitials didn’t come off as distractions, or even gimmicks, but the habits of four brothers so immensely skilled that convention equals tedium. In this case, that included fiery chicken-pickin’ on Albert Lee’s “Country Boy” and Joseph’s silkysmooth singing on Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” as bookends to the best of the Flecktone’s catalog. They emphasized the Latin influence of “Sinister Minister” and revealed that the Fleck favorite “Sex In A Pan” had a North Carolina origin: It was named for a dessert he had during a stop at Green Acres Farm.

Only when they briefly referenced that lost 1985 Arista record did they seem somewhat human. “Baby Doll” sounded like someone trying to recapture the magic of the Clark-Duke Project’s “Sweet Baby” to pair with the skittering synths on Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover.” It could have stuck if given a chance, but after hearing where they’ve taken their abilities almost 30 years later, it’s probably best that it didn’t. !