April 2008

Victor Wooten
April 7, 2008 Lee's Palace Toronto
Victor Wooten Band hits Lee’s Palace
by Zoë Guigueno (photo: june 2004 by Roger Humbert)

As a bass player, I had absolutely no excuse to miss seeing Victor Wooten. I arrived prepared to be blown out of my mind. The last time I saw this popular electric bassist was last year with the renowned bluegrass-funk group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I remember standing outside Massey Hall after the show, banging my bicycle helmet against my head.

Lee’s Palace was packed when I arrived, just as the band was into their second tune. I wormed through the crowd to where I had a good view of the band, and took a minute to adjust to the volume. The band was in a heavy, synth-laden funk groove, the Virginian bassist armed with his Yin Yang four-string Fodera, nearly challenging the drummer with his percussive playing and vocalist Saundra Williams belting out the lyrics and moving to the beat. The audience was cheered and danced throughout the whole two and a half hour show.

The crowd freaked out as Wooten plunged into his solo; a torrent of notes and rhythms placed right in the pocket. Imagine the purr of a robotic cat, amplified enough to shake a building, and funky enough to make you dance. His unique style of playing — he uses all ten of his fingers and his palms to slap, pop, and slide over the strings — makes him immediately recognizable. He plays so fast it makes you laugh.

Victor Wooten (Jun. '04)
At one point I abandoned my bag and coat and weaved through the throng, right up to the stage. The audience ranged from mullet and leather jacket-sporting men to pregnant women sitting safely out of the way of the hyper, beer-drinking college students like myself. Although it is exciting to be that close and have your teeth almost rattled out of your mouth from the vibrations of the lower frequencies, I changed my mind after a few tunes and retreated to my more comfortable viewing station.

Everyone in this band had ridiculous chops. Guitarist Regi Wooten, Victor’s older brother and first bass teacher, showed off his prowess in a guitar feature that built up to such a fit that he grabbed his microphone and started using it as a slide. Their tour manager rushed out onstage and grappled with the manic musician to save the microphone. Regi continued to lunge back and forth, putting his guitar under his leg and shredding like he was possessed. Just when I thought he couldn’t do any more, the lights went down and the tuning pegs and inlays on his fretboard lit up with blue LEDs.

Drummer Derico Watson had a similar trick, with the LEDs on the tips of his drumsticks. I was impressed by his kick-drum technique — although he had only one kick pedal, he played at the speed of a riffle shuffle. I later learned he does that with some sort of toe-heel technique. I guess these players just find their own tricks and really milk them onstage to wow the crowd.

I have to admit that I grew a little tired of all the incessant wanking and theatrical elements. It is impressive at first, but unsubstantial when the actual tunes are, I found, cheesy and clichéd. Composition is not one of Mr. Wooten’s strengths. The last tune they played went a little bit like this: “I’m going to miss your smiling face/ spreading love all over the place/ I know I’ll see you again/ In another land, but not until then.” This after Victor’s sickeningly sweet, over-rehearsed brawl about how much he loves us all, how he loves our country, he loves our smiling faces, and how we just need to “keep on smiling”. He plays his yin yang bass and sings about love and peace, but his bass declares war.

Probably my favourite part of the night was during the solo bass section, when the rest of the band cleared the stage for a few tunes. Over a looped, deep, funky bass line, after some lightening-speed noodling, Victor Wooten pulled out his old trick: playing and looping one note after another until he had a scale ascending to his highest possible note. But he didn’t stop there; after he got to the top and let it go a few times, taking in the cheering crowd, he started looping in another scale, descending, placing the notes on the offbeats, until he got down to the low E. The result was a barrage of hard-edged notes, slapping us in the face. I had my hands on my head, repeating “What!?!?! What!?!?” The two bass players I was standing with hugged each other, consoling “It’s okay, it’s okay!”

This kind of music is high energy and thrilling to hear, when you’re not expecting it. The band has really perfected their show, ensuring lots of audience-performer interaction, smooth transitions and a great ending — they credited each other by taking turns forming a semi circle around each player — then all pointing enthusiastically to them during the streaming applause.

The Victor Wooten Band will wrap up their spring tour in early May, and head home to Tennessee.

The band
Victor Wooten – electric bass
Saundra Williams – vocals
Derico Watson – drums
Regi Wooten – electric guitar
Carlton Taylor – keyboards
We welcome your comments and feedback
Zoë Guigueno
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