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Thursday, June 30, 2005 09:02 pm

A circus of soul

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Victor Wooten picked up the bass at the age of 3 and never looked back.

“Back then, it was a chance to be like my brothers,” Wooten says. “All my brothers were playing, and this was an opportunity for me to do what they were doing. Here was my chance to belong.”

Wooten’s four brothers were members of the Wooten Brothers Band, with which Victor cut his chops on the bass, performing at age 5 as part of the opening act for such artists as Curtis Mayfield and War. Later, Wooten moved to Nashville, but his brothers were never too far away. After meeting first-rate banjo player Béla Fleck, Victor and brother Roy (“Futureman”) and keyboardist Howard Levy rounded out the original lineup of the Flecktones, a Grammy-winning jazz combo.

Wooten’s current tour, “Soul Circus,” rides on the back of his first solo album, also named Soul Circus, in four years. The album’s sound is a departure from the jazz-free jams fans are accustomed to hearing from Wooten in the Flecktones’ ensemble.

“I wanted to expand my listening audience without losing the jazz audience. Music is bigger than jazz, and I was hoping to be able to make a record that was played on the radio,” Wooten says.

The result: the same mesmerizingly fast thumb licks and funky bass lines with the soul sensibility of yesteryear legends such as Sly and the Family Stone. Soul Circus plays like a tribute to bass legends and Wooten’s worthy contemporaries. Prodigies such as Bootsy Collins and Rhonda Smith (of Prince fame) pack the album with powerful bass on every track.

Wooten’s live show this time around lives up to the “circus” part of its moniker with the promise of lights, stage sets, decorations, and seven or eight musicians onstage at a time.

“It’s the biggest production I’ve done on my own,” Wooten says.

Listeners will hear much more in the way of vocals than they do at a Béla Fleck and the Flecktones show. The new songs are more like party songs, more danceable, Wooten says. Another highlight is the reunion of the Wooten brothers onstage. It’s been years since all five have toured together, Wooten says.

Wooten was voted Bass Player of the Year three times by Bass Player magazine, and he’s won the award for Bassist of the Year twice in the Nashville Music Awards.

When he’s not pounding out bass lines, Wooten is indulging his passion for nature. This August he plans to host Funk Fest (the “Funk” stands for Friends uv Nature and Knowledge) in Indiana, an idea that grew out of his Victor Wooten Bass/Nature Camps.

Victor Wooten and Soul Circus perform at 8 p.m. Friday, July 1, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $25.50. For more information, call 217-523-2787.

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