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One word for Wooten: wow
Victor Wooten's dazzling bass guitar playing is something to behold. Check out his prodigious talent at the Wilma on Wednesday.

Bass guitarist among the greatest ever

Victor Wooten is considered by many to be the greatest living virtuoso of the electric bass guitar. Indeed, as the only three-time winner of Bass Player Magazine's Bass Player of the Year award, Wooten may be the greatest electric bassist ever.

But when Wooten first started performing professionally, he spent most of his time plunking the simplest of bass parts, the kind of oompah-oompah lines that one might associate with old-time country music.

That's because Wooten was, in fact, playing old-time country music.

That's right: The fastest, funkiest fingers to ever touch a coiled string earned their first paid gig on the hands of an 8-year old African-American kid in a Stetson, covering hokey Nashville classics at a Busch Gardens theme park in Virginia.

It was the early 1970s, and Wooten was hired on at Busch Gardens along with his four brothers. Together, the Wooten Brothers Band probably looked like a countrified Jackson 5. If their earliest recorded work is any indication, they probably were already much better players than that music required.

But hey - it was a gig.

"My brothersŠprepared me for just about anything by teaching me to keep my mind open and to learn to adapt," says Wooten. "We'd do anything we could think of to try and duplicate the sounds we heard on records."

It's strange to think of Victor Wooten as a product of the country music scene. Properly, he belongs in a line of electric bass masters like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius - players who fused technical wizardry with deep understanding of musical structure and melody.

Neither blazing fingerwork nor theoretical complexity matter a whit in the world of country music. And by the late '70s, the brothers Wooten had moved on to performing funk and soul music, eventually landing gigs as the opening act for stars like Curtis Mayfield and War.

Nevertheless, Victor Wooten didn't get his big break until he moved to Nashville in 1988. There, he started playing with Bela Fleck, another Nashville oddball who was earning a reputation as a leading virtuoso of the jazz banjo.

The meeting was indeed fortuitous. Wooten is to the electric bass what Fleck is to the banjo … or what David Grisman is to the mandolin, or what Leo Kottke is to the acoustic guitar. He's a man who knows how to coax such extraordinary range of feeling and expression out of his instrument, that he is at once exhilarating and exhausting to listen to.

Indeed, if there's any critique worth leveling at Wooten, it's that after awhile, his virtuosity can become numbing. Like Fleck, he has a tendency to bury the listener in a flurry of notes that, while sonorous enough, are too dazzling to be genuinely emotive.

Oftentimes the musical narrative gets sidetracked or overwhelmed by Wooten's spontaneously inventive whimsy, and gets lost.

Still, it's hard to criticize a man who has such an innate understanding of his instrument, and such honed chops. Criticizing Wooten for playing too many notes is sort of like criticizing Michael Jordan for scoring too many points. If the consequence of his artistry is to stun the observer into slack-jawed awe, is that such a bad thing?

Wooten last appeared in Missoula with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, in a performance at the University Theater this past August. This time, he returns with his own band, which consists of brothers Reggie and Josef Wooten, as well as dueling drummers J.D. Blair and Derrico Watson.

You're not likely to hear a better bassist during your lifetime; and his band ain't half-bad either.

Tickets to the show, which takes place at the Wilma Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 4, are available at Rockin' Rudys or the UC Ticket Office for $20.50.

COMING OUT AT THE OTHER SIDE

Next week marks the official grand opening of The Other Side, a new Missoula venue for live music located at 1805 Regent. Rising from the ashes of the Cowboy Bar (and the short-lived Cue Ball Billiards), and drawing on the memory of Jay's Upstairs and the Blue Heron, The Other Side's aim is to draw live music fans away from downtown and across the river (hence the venue's name) to hear local, original bands and mid-tier touring acts.

"Our main focus is on quality original music, as much as we can get in here," says Andrea Harsell, promotions manager for the new club (and herself a recognized local musician). "That's something this town really needs."

Of course, the owners of the Blue Heron and Jay's thought that, too. But Harsell believes that the new club has figured out how to succeed where others failed.

"We're really focusing on presenting a consistent schedule," explains Harsell. "The main thing is to get people into a routine of expecting certain kinds of music on certain nights."

Thus Tuesdays are open-mic night at the club; on Wednesdays the club hosts alternative acts sponsored by KBGA College Radio; Thursdays are for local punk and alternative bands; Friday is hip-hop night; Saturdays are for metal and hardcore; and Sundays bring a rock-and-roll jam session. The club is normally closed on Mondays.

Every few weeks, Harsell hopes to bring in a big-name touring act; but more regularly the venue promises to feature local musicians and DJs.

It's an ambitious approach that will hopefully pay off for Harsell and Other Side owner Tom Reed (who also owns the adjacent Buck's Club). They'll have their work cut out for them - not only in finding enough great music to keep patrons streaming in the door six nights a week, but also in attempting to draw patrons to an area of town that's not exactly known as a haven for young, alternative culture.

For the weeklong grand opening, they're bringing in several hot touring acts and familiar local artists.

On Monday, Feb. 2, the Other Side hosts San Francisco's Om Trio, one of the most acclaimed young jazz-fusion groups on the scene today (the Washington Post called them "a Medeski, Martin & Wood that rawks.")

Friday will bring a performance by N2Deep, a Chicano gangsta-rap group that earned some fame in the early '90s. They'll be joined by hip-hop acts Filth & Foul, and Embcee.

Appearances are also scheduled throughout the week by several of Missoula's best local bands, including the Oblio Joes, the International Playboys, Oddability and others.

Check the Clubwatch event grid for more details on those shows.

And lest you think that Harsell has forsaken her performing career, note that she and her band, the Andrea Harsell Experience, will appear this Friday, Jan. 30, at the Top Hat.

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or at jnickell@missoulian.com.

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