News Column

Wooten Brothers dazzle differently

December 8, 2013


Dec. 08--There is nothing quite like a family band. And among family bands, there is nothing quite like The Wooten Brothers.

But for the vagaries of the music business, the brothers might be a household name as a group. But a 1985 major label album -- stripped of brother Victor's bass playing -- rose nowhere near the pop music radar. Instead, Victor Wooten and siblings Regi, Roy and Joseph found other ways to thrive in the entertainment business.

Victor and drummer Roy have been most notable as members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Oldest brother and guitarist Regi has made his name in Nashville, Tenn., as a multi-instrumental teacher. And Joseph has since the early 1990s played keyboards with the Steve Miller Band.

But the family still gets together for occasional performances. A December tour brought The Wooten Brothers to Jefferson Center on Saturday night, and they raised a jazz-funk ruckus in front of more than 400 people. "Different" was the operative word all the way around.

It was different to hear a 62-beat rest in James Brown's "Sex Machine," but Joseph called one, and the audience, which had already heard him call for Brown-style hits on a variety of beats, counted along while Roy directed them with a drum stick. It was different for Regi and Victor to hold up their guitars toward each other, each player slapping the strings of the other's ax to create something that straddled a hard-grooving line between soulful and dissonant.

It was different to have a bass drum turned upward like a huge floor tom-tom, with double-bass pedals striking from below while hands smacked it from above -- the sound and air moving out of two guitar-style f-hole slots facing the audience. But Roy Wooten, who long ago earned the nickname "Future Man" for the electronic Drumitar he brought to the fore with the Flecktones, took the old-school kit in a new direction.

This is not to say that it was a show overladen with gimmicks and tricks. For example, thinking of Regi's two-handed tap/thumb-slap guitar technique as a gimmick is to miss the musical point entirely. But for a family that grew up playing music together, the tricks -- many of which would require slow-motion replay to analyze -- were part of a long- and well-honed performance magic that on Saturday stretched for more than two riveting hours.

Much of the performance featured songs the family grew up playing -- Brown, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, the Jackson 5 and more from across the pop and jazz spectrum -- each imbued with inimitable Wooten touches. The band took the classical feel of Christmas favorite "Carol of the Bells" into jazz-rock territory, Joseph warbling up a wild keyboard solo and Victor following with mercurial space funk.

They touched on some Flecktones material, with "Sex In a Pan" showing brother Victor's thumb-popping style; some of Victor's solo music, including show-closing tour of time signatures "Me And My Bass Guitar" and Billy Cobham's "Stratus," on which Roy laid out an intense solo.

The brothers recalled part of their time growing up in the Newport News area, where they spent summers playing at Busch Gardens, with the bluegrass stomp of Albert Lee's "Country Boy."

About mid-show, the band played a couple of songs from that ill-fated Wooten Brothers album. The numbers, including the sweet love song "Baby Doll," were of a piece with the R&B/pop of the time and sounded like they would have fit well on that era's radio playlists. But after hearing the band tear through such a variety of other styles with enthusiasm and phenomenal talent, it felt good to know that they weren't sucked into the pop music vortex.

A Music Lab at Jefferson Center student, Jayna Brown, opened the show, fronting a trio of fellow lab students -- guitarist Gabe Morales, drummer Jared Nichols and his brother, bassist Joseph Nichols.

The 12-year-old singer stunned the uninitiated with her range of notes low and high, her phrase control and her self-assured stage presence. She is a singer advanced well beyond her years, as is blues-rock ace Morales. The Nichols brothers showed solid timing and restraint, grooving behind young Jayna on originals "I'll Do Me" and "Fever," as well as an outstanding cover of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You."

If these kids are the future of Roanoke's music scene, the future can be something special.


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