Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, AL is May 16-18, 2014 - www.hangoutmusicfest.com

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

Jingle All the Way

(Rounder)

Banjomeister Bela trims the tree, pours out the eggnog, and lets anyone with the Christmas Spirit amble in to sit down by the fire. So when this intricate Yuletide set takes off with Tuvan throat-singers spinning their home-language take on “Jingle Bells,” well, if it sounds a bit weird, just tap your feet until your brain settles into the groove between “ethnic” and “odd.” Bela and his Merry Men—Jeff Coffin on woodwinds, Victor Lemonte Wooten on bass, and Victor’s odder brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten on percussion—can start, stop, bend, twist, and transcend traditionals on a split second’s notice. Sometimes only one of them’s needed; when the less-weird Wooten sets out on “The Christmas Song” his bass evokes bass, guitar, bells, cello, and even the Velvet Fog of Mel Torme, who wrote it. Other times, it’s all hands on deck as the quartet, plus irregular guest stars, plunks, bonks, and breathes arpeggiated, chord-substituted, and dissonance-thickened expansions of “What Child Is This,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” “Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (presaging an obligatory run through Guaraldi’s “Peanuts”-cartoon trademark theme “Linus and Lucy,” Victor Wooten mysteriously making beats and accents appear and disappear with a wave of his fretting hand). I usually spend Christmas hiding under a blanket groaning, moaning, and counting down the radio minutes between Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (guilty pleasure) and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” (surprisingly strident evocation of peace’s inevitability). My Yuletide hearth consists of a bar where lights stay low and a J.T. Walsh-lookalike plays Kool and the Gang on the computer jukebox. This year I’ll play this album. It’s that good. And I’ll give it to my mother. That means it’s better than that good.