Victor Wooten Band at Cervantes

Victor Wooten Band
July 14, 2012
Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver
by Geoff Anderson

How low can you go? You can’t go any lower than the Victor Wooten Band. The band is deep, it’s low, it’s almost all bottom. This is a band where five members play bass. That is to say, five bass players. In one band. They didn’t all play at the same time. Saturday night, the most bass players we heard at one time was only four. That is to say, four bass players played at the same time. Frequently.

The band Morphine pioneered what they called low rock. But they only had a two string slide bass, a baritone sax and some drums. The only bands out there with as many bass players as the Victor Wooten Band are symphony orchestras. And those outfits tend to throw in a few dozen other players for good measure. The VWB has seven members. Wooten himself is a bass player and apparently he likes it so much he’s surrounded himself with more bass.

Actually, all the band members are multi-instrumentalists. It just so happens that most of them play bass. At least part time. Wooten himself started the evening on electric cello with only three bass players behind him. The band leader stuck to bass most of the evening; usually of the electric variety, but he also pulled out an acoustic bass, just to show everyone he could play that too. He even strapped on a guitar for some scratchy funk on “Chameleon.”

The instrument switching occurred mid-song as often as it did between songs requiring careful attention to keep track of what was going on. Bassists Steve Bailey and Dave Welsch doubled on trombone and trumpet, respectively and often picked up their horns with their basses still strapped on for a horn solo or some unison playing. Anthony Wellington was the most consistent bassist staying in the deep end most of the evening.

The only band members eschewing the bass were drummer Derico Watson and vocalist Krystal Peterson. Peterson doubled (tripled?) on keyboards and drums (while the other drummer, JD Blair, got into the bass action). Watson stuck with his drum kit for the evening.

The sound, as you can imagine, is deep, heavy. That’s not only because most of the instruments dwell in the bass clef, but also because the band is bursting with virtuosos which leads, in turn, to lots of notes. When more than two basses were in action, one or more would work on the upper end of the fret-board to provide some sonic diversity. Throughout much of the evening, however, it was a little difficult to follow everything that was going on in the deep end. The concert environment is notoriously difficult to deliver crisp, defined bass sounds. Even with some recent sonic upgrades at Cervantes including the addition of baffles on the ceiling, the low-end sound was a bit muddy.

Nevertheless, when it counted, Wooten’s bass came through with relative clarity. Not surprisingly, the band’s namesake stood out front for a number of solos. Sometimes, he would play impossibly fast single-note lines seemingly using all ten fingers at once. Another solo was mostly chords invoking a throaty guitar-like sound.

Wooten has earned a reputation as one of the top jazz bassists on the scene with his work over the years as a Flecktone, helping Bela Fleck bring the banjo back to jazz. Like the VWB, the Flecktones are a band of virtuosos and the resulting sound is often fast, furious and intricate. The VWB shares some of those characteristics, but one big difference, besides all those denizens of the deep in the VWB, is vocals. Peterson was out front singing on over half of the tunes with Wooten and other band members, including both drummers, adding backing vocals. Another difference between the Flecktones and the VWB is that, whereas the Flecktones play mostly original music, the VWB throws in covers on a regular basis.

Much of the instrumental playing was manic, frantic, dense and tense. Like the Flecktones, that’s just what happens when you collect a number of instrumental masters, put them in one place and turn them loose. Many of the covers served to lighten the mood. Wooten pulled a couple from the Motown stable including “I Want You Back,” a hit for the Jackson 5 and “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder. Equally soulful was “Tell Me Something Good.”

Peterson, herself, was a contrast with her blonde pixie cut set against the serious backdrop of the male musicians predominately working on their bass guitars or drums. Steve Bailey was a particular highlight of the evening. He holds the Bass Chair at the Berklee School of Music and mostly played an electric six string fretless bass, a feat that seemed to impress even Wooten. It was a massive instrument, but Bailey played it with a light, melodic touch. He and Wooten liberally sprinkled their solos with quotes from Monk to the Stones to the Wizard of Oz.

It may not be the conventional way to do so, but the Victor Wooten Band definitely gets down to the bass-ics.

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