New 'blue' revue

Acoustic Planet shows how mountain music has changed

Originator Bill Monroe called it "bluegrass," but over the years, both the label and the music's tightly defined parameters have morphed into something different. Saturday brings the arrival of the Acoustic Planet Tour, where performances by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, the Yonder Mountain String Band and Keller Williams will likely demonstrate just how far traditional bluegrass has come in the 60-plus years since its inception.

Over the past decade or so, bluegrass has merged with the incredibly popular hippie jam-band scene, resulting in a variety of unique mutations. There is no single event that defines the first point of merger. Bluegrass has been a favorite of the counterculture since the early 1960s, when traditional acts such as Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin found a new, younger, hipper audience touring the West Coast. Hippie guru Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass aficionado even before forming the Grateful Dead, and no doubt his love of the music helped expose his followers to it. Rock bands such as the Dead, the Byrds, and New Riders of the Purple Sage soon began incorporating country and bluegrass into their repertoires, making it cool to twang things up.

Before long — and much to Monroe's well-documented chagrin — bluegrass had branched into numerous hybrids. The acts on the Acoustic Planet Tour typify some of the variations of this phenomenon. Fleck and his cronies call their music "Blue Bop," Yonder Mountain claims "Jamgrass" as its signifier, and Williams goes over the top with the tongue-twisting "solo acoustic jazz-funk-reggae-techno-grass."

Of the three acts, the Flecktones, which formed in 1989, have the most impressive track record. Frontman Fleck started out as a traditional bluegrass banjo player, but over time his interests in jazz and classical music significantly influenced his style. In the band, Fleck is joined by Jeff Coffin on horns, Victor Wooten on bass, and Wooten's brother — the strangely named "Futureman" — on drumitar, a unique synthesized percussion instrument that's held like a guitar. Musically, the group explores a large aural world through improvisation, transcendental soloing, and an almost psychic ability to lead and follow each other with amazing precision. The Flecktones might ruffle traditionalist feathers, but for the most part, the group's experimentation is a good thing.

Stretching the boundaries even further, solo performer Keller Williams relies even less on the fundamental concepts of bluegrass. He utilizes onstage sampling and recorded loops to create complex, full-bodied sounds. His multilayered instrumental constructions are made with a meticulousness that borders on obsessive.

Williams further expands bluegrass's parameters by not only performing his own unusual and quirky songs, but also covering such diverse artists as the Sugarhill Gang, David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson. Williams has become a favorite among the younger generation of jam band fans as a result of his energetic and unpredictable performances.

Unlike Williams or the Flecktones, the Yonder Mountain String Band is more grounded in classic bluegrass, but the group can also take off on extended jams. Sometimes they come off as noodling, but at best they're musical odysseys. Since the Yonder Mountain String Band doesn't use any electronic enhancements, it is the one true "acoustic" band on the tour, serving to bridge the past with the present.

As a whole, the Acoustic Planet Tour stands as a symbol of just how far bluegrass has drifted from its roots over the years. But change is inevitable, and in the right musical hands, deviating from the established formula can be both entertaining and enlightening.