Words / Photos: Alex Wood
The Del McCoury Band defines traditionalism in the bluegrass genre.
The five piece band, including Del’s sons Ronnie and Robbie, performed an acoustic set comprising of originals, covers and traditional songs, the musicians huddling around two microphones for amplification.
With few older bluegrass veterans left to carry the torch of traditionalism, 75-year old Del feels like both an icon of the past and a savior in the present, maintaining the dignity and customs that marked the Grand Ole Opry era of bluegrass, obviously influenced by Del’s days performing with Bill Monroe.
The set began with two Del McCoury Band classics, “Loneliness And Desperation” and “Bluest Man In Town.” The audience applauded with enthusiasm as each musician made his way to the microphone for a solo, the up-tempo numbers allowing the band to show off their musicianship.
Despite the impressive, high-energy solos, Del himself continually stole the spotlight, his voice as impressive as ever as he nailed notes and harmonies with an unbelievably high range. If anything, the strain of his age has only emphasizes the blues he sings.
Del and his band have the charm and wit one expects from a ‘good ol’ boy’ bluegrass band of the past, humbly addressing the audience frequently before and during songs, asking for suggestions and even chatting with audience members.
As is tradition, Del introduced the band members one by one, giving each a chance to perform a song for the audience.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Del said during the introductions, and he obviously meant it.
“Kentucky Waltz” followed by “Orange Blossom Special” marked a high point for traditionalism, the latter being played by request.
The set featured a handful of songs from the band’s most recent, Grammy-awarded record The Streets Of Baltimore. Naturally sounding more polished than many of the songs played by request, tracks like “Misty” and “Big Blue Raindrops” were performed as though they existed since bluegrass’s beginnings.
There are few things more refreshing than watching a band perform with instruments unplugged. The sound was phenomenal and musicians used their respective distance from the microphone as an opportunity to create dynamic range, stepping up when soloing and backing away when finished. Up to four singers crowded a single microphone at a time, mandolin player Ronnie often scampering across the stage to sing alongside his father.
“Gone But Not Forgotten” provided one of many highlights, the combination of melodic vocal harmonies and solo sections allowing the band to do what they do best, as though one song could encapsulate their entire sound with its high energy and musical camaraderie.
“In Despair” followed as a tribute to Bill Monroe, Del stating that he “sang this with him almost every night” during his stint with the bluegrass great in the 60s, though only because Monroe could never remember the words.
The second half of the set consisted almost entirely of requests from the audience and songs decided last minute by the band, as though Del remembered every track he performed over the last fifty years.
This led to performances of classics such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “High On The Mountain,” the latter followed by a loud yell from an audience member for more banjo.
“More banjo? How much more banjo?” Del said with a laugh before the band started into “40 Acres And A Fool,” banjoist Robbie shredding his parts intentionally close to the microphone. The song, performed by request, exemplified the band’s good humor within its lyrics, the crowd cheering and laughing out loud at the descriptions of a rich man pretending to belong in the rural country because “the hat and boots look cool.”
The band then performed a gospel section of the set. “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray” found four singers trading vocals around one microphone over Del’s bare accompaniment from his tattered acoustic guitar, Del’s vocal range again proving itself indispensable.
“I’ll Put On A Crown And Walk Around” was performed in a similar fashion before the band finished the show with the livelier “All Aboard” and “Nothing Special.”
Thanks to the band’s laid-back demeanor and exceptional musicianship, the night played out like a celebration of everything bluegrass is intended to be.
Setlist (Late Show)
1.) Loneliness And Desperation
2.) Bluest Man In Town
3.) Quicksburg Rendezvous
5.) The Limehouse Blues
6.) The Kentucky Waltz
7.) Orange Blossom Special
8.) Streets Of Baltimore
10.) Gone But Not Forgotten
11.) In Despair
12.) Learning The Blues
13.) Eli Renfro
14.) 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
15.) Big Blue Raindrops
16.) High On The Mountain
17.) 40 Acres And A Fool
18.) Get Down On Your Knees And Pray
19.) I’ll Put On A Crown And Walk Around
20.) All Aboard
21) Nothing Special
Stream Late Show (via archive.org)
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