One of my favorite versions, which most people have probably never heard, is that done by my absolute favorite band ever, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. Recorded for their 1991 album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, it perfectly captures the majesty of the piece but expands on it perfectly. There's minimal improvisation but the combination of harmonica and banjo really fit the tune extremely well.
I grew up in middle Tennessee and one of the local affiliates, WKRN if I'm not mistaken, ran the Flecktone's video for the song every night before they went off the air. Why was I up nightly, watching TV stations go off the air? Because I'm a geek and I was up late browsing BBSes or Bulletin Board Systems; consider it a sort of pre-Internet. It was during the AOL era but was for people who didn't want to, or couldn't, shell out $20 a month for a bunch of chat rooms and useless crap. Anyway, I stayed up all night typing to strangers on message boards and browsing "warez" with the TV on. It was here that I gained an early appreciation for the Flecktones, but at the time I had no interest in jazz. Several years later, as I adopted a broader musical understanding and picked up on artists like the Yellowjackets and John Pizzarelli, I quickly gravitated towards Béla and the band due to their close association with the Dave Matthews Band, of whom I was a devoted fan.
Fast forward to the present and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are still my favorite band, I catch them every chance I get. Their shows are phenomenal and even their most recent album, a collection of Christmas songs both old and new, blows my mind.
Coincidentally, Flecktone Jeff Coffin is joining DMB to fill the void left by the loss of Leroi Moore, but I get the idea he's still planning to keep with the 'tones as well, which I hope is true. DMB is gaining an amazing talent, which is not meant as a hit on Leroi, but Jeff is just an incredible artist. I'm actually somewhat interested in their next album as a result.
Anyway, time to post some music. Here's a small taste of the Flecktones, including the aforementioned Star Spangled Banner, in a live setting.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones - The Star Spangled Banner > Hole In The Wall (Live)
You can get the entire 1991 concert this track is from at the Live Music Archive. You can preview it below, though some of the track names are messed up on this particular show...
Download entire show as .mp3 files
1991 for the Flecktones is ancient history; Howard Levy filled the fourth slot playing harmonica. After he left, they spent a few years as a trio and made some amazing albums but the modern 'tones feature Coffin on saxophone, as intimated previously. Here they are jamming Next on Conan O'Brien.
Purchase some Flecktones music, if you like. If you wish to support the artist more directly, buy it straight from their own website:
Flecktones.com Music Store
Buy Three Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, my favorite 'tones album, @ iTunes
...of course, any discussion of the Banner always leads me to think of Roseanne Barr's awful rendition in 1990 and here's the best video I could find of that moment. I don't find it offensive, personally, just awful. It wasn't funny, as she had hoped, but it proved that she had no business on a national stage singing anything at all.