Sunday, July 24, 2011

Live: The Del McCoury Band Takes NYC!

The last week or so is what I have been calling the "Week of Del" for some time. The Del McCoury band came to New York City to play their own show on Saturday, July 16th, at City Winery, as well as to join The Preservation Hall Jazz Band for two special performances on Wednesday, July 20th: a live afternoon taping for WNYC's Live in The Greene Space as part of NPR's Soundcheck (which also included a set by Chris Thile and Michael Daves). The two groups would later reconvene as one that evening for a special performance at City Winery to perform selections from their new collaboration, American Legacies.

I decided that I just had to attend The Del McCoury Band show on July 16th at City Winery. I haven't seen The Del McCoury Band play live since 2005, which was shortly after I moved to New York. That was at a time when I was still relatively new to Del McCoury's legendary discography and his distinguished place in bluegrass music history.

I picked up The Mountain by Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band around 2002 or 2003, and it was my first real taste of bluegrass music beyond listening to alt-country and classic country. That record inspired me to take pursuit and embark on an impassioned journey of digging through traditional and bluegrass music, that still continues today, both as a listener and as someone who has been studying the mandolin.

Since I already had tickets to see Chris Thile and Michael Daves play in the evening on the 20th in Brooklyn, I decided to match Del's 7/16 show at City Winery with the 7/20 afternoon Live In The Greene Space taping with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. For me, the opportunity to see two sides of The Del McCoury Band in one week was just too great of an opportunity to pass up.

Let's start first with the 7/16 City Winery Performance:

The night began almost instantly after the group took the stage. Del McCoury led the band through the first two tunes of the night, kicking off the 2-hour set with their original "Dry My Tears and Move On" and Jimmy Martin's "She's Left Me Again".

From there, Del humbly returned to the far right side of the stage, and offered the spotlight to each of the players of the band. One after another, each took their turn leading the group through a selection.

Ronnie McCoury, mandolin player extraordinaire, launched into a Bill Monroe instrumental, and followed it with a special centennial dedication to the Father of Bluegrass with a heartfelt and masterfully performed rendition of the master's "Body And Soul". Next, banjo player Rob McCoury blazed a trail for the second instrumental of the evening, with the band shifting gears slightly and offering up the playful "Nashville Cats" without missing a beat. Fiddle player Jason Carter led the band through it's third instrumental break, while Alan Bartram led the way as the band joined in on "Kentucky Waltz".

The night continued on as the group filled the with a set to the brim with a collection of songs that ranged from Del's early days up through his recent work. In between tunes, Del asked for requests, which was consistently met with roars and shouts of song titles each time.  I'm sure everyone else, as I certainly did, wished the band could squeeze each favorite that was called out into the evening's performance. It was really fun and laughter-inducing to all around to hear the different songs that were being called out from across the room. It was also equally as hard to settle on any one suggestion for the band to play too. I kept changing my mind with almost each request being made. It seemed like Del and the boys had the same challenge!

But under those bright stage lights, Del and the boys took it all in stride. They were smiling, laughing, and deciding on the spot in between each song how to set the pace of the evening, which included a full range of traditional bluegrass. Breakdowns, waltzes, ballads, and gospel tunes filled the two-hour set, complete with two encores.

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" received probably the loudest applause and roar of the evening from the request-hollering crowd, while my wish for "Rain and Snow" was granted, I couldn't have been happier. That tune in particular was the one that I wanted to hear the most. Del's version of that tune is my favorite, and it is one of what I call my "touchstone-bluegrass tunes". It's up at the top of my own personal list of  bluegrass tunes that struck a deep chord in me and drew me to this music. I'd say it's definitely one that helped to pave the way for my understanding, admiration, and love for bluegrass music.

The "city-slicker turned county resident" tale of "40 Acres And A Fool" brought laughs and smiles throughout the room, while "Blackjack County Chains", and "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray" were each equally as memorable, and worked well for expanding the evening's repertoire.

Mr. McCoury introduced their performance of "Are You Teasing Me" with his own story of how he was first drawn to Carl Smith's version of the song as a young man, which was also popularized by The Louvin Brothers.

For such a legendary performer as Del McCoury, joined by his sons and bandmates- who are all such masters, it was moving and inspiring to watch and listen as they offered such a deeply respectful, masterfully virtuosic, and crowd-inducing celebratory night of music.

The evening was not just filled with an amazing performance of music, but with genuinely sincere stories that Del and the boys admiringly imparted to the crowd. It's rare to attend a live performance as an audience member and truly feel as though you are "in the moment" and participating with the music and musicians playing it. But the City Winery show was one of those rare happenings.

With my back to the yellow taxi cabs and city traffic rolling by on the other side of the building's glass facade of floor-to-ceiling windows, it was hard to not feel a little bit of mountain breeze, some of the country heat, and the true essence of how sharing music for the sake of community had taken over the room. It was just awesome.

The evening's performance encapsulated so much. The Del McCoury Band not only impeccably played their songs and got the room moving, but the boys all shared tales of their own influences and what drew them to this music. The personal stories and experiences imparted to the crowd were welcomed and cherished by everybody in the room.

Del and the boys even carefully took the time to respectfully honor Bill Monroe many times throughout night to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday this year. The performance reached deep into the history of bluegrass music, while remarkably connecting with the crowd in the very sense of the here and now, effortlessly transcending nostalgia for an inspiring vitality and musical mastery that has resonated with me long after the show ended. Needless to say, I've been listening to Del consistently ever since this show, and it's been hard to make myself choose anything else. I can't wait until next time!

Here's the set list for the 7/16 City Winery Show:

1. Dry My Tears and Move On
2. She's Left Me Again
3. Bill Monroe Instrumental
4. With Body and Soul
5. Instrumental
6. Nashville Cats
7. Instrumental
8. Kentucky Waltz
9. Hello Lonely
10. Sweet Appalachia
11. Good Man Like Me
12. Queen Anne's Lace
13. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
14. Beauty of My Dreams
15. Are you Teasin' Me
16. 40 Acres And a Fool
17. White House Blues
18. Blackjack County Chains
19. Sea of Forgetfulness
20. Get Down On Your Knees And Pray
21. Rain and Snow
22. Gone But Not Forgotten
23. In Despair
24. I Feel The Blues Movin' In
25. High On The Mountain

As for the WNYC Live in The Greene Space show, it was a pretty stellar hour of performances and interviews. It was my first time ever going to a live taping and it was such a blast! It's well worth your  time to check out the video of the show (FYI: If you decide to watch it, announcer John Schaefer's intro is followed by news from last Wednesday, but if you skip to 6:24 or so you can pick it up right before the first set begins). You can go to the Live in The Greene Space site or watch it below:

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