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Published: 2004/10/30
by Brian Ferdman

Live at Mechanics Hall – Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys

Acoustic Disc 59
Acoustic Disc’s latest offering, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys’ Live at Mechanics Hall is both a historical document and a measuring stick of progress. Captured at a 1963 concert by a young David Grisman, the recording sounds remarkably clean for a live performance of this era. Granted, there are a handful of moments when the sound overloads and tops out on higher notes, but these minor crackles and pops only add to the old-timey feel of the show. And yes, this is bluegrass from a different time; this is your father’s bluegrass.
1963 found Bill Monroe in an interesting spot. The founder of bluegrass was experiencing a relative career resurgence, thanks in part to his inclusion in the folk music revival that had swept across America. His band was also in fine form, with young Del McCoury manning lead vocals and guitar and Bill Keith holding court on a revolutionary style of banjo picking. Monroe’s act had transformed over the years, and old comedic bits were omitted as the band became the centerpiece of a larger revue with sit-ins a-plenty.
From "Dark Hollow" to "Rawhide" to "Uncle Pen," this concert is loaded with classics, although not one single rendition would be considered definitive. Nevertheless, it’s a joy to hear Monroe’s impassioned yodeling on "Muleskinner Blues," his bluesy mandolin picking in "On and On," and Keith’s unique and speedy banjo soloing on "Devil’s Dream." Of course, no matter what your standards may be, it’s hard to avoid falling for Monroe’s turn on his masterpiece, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Vocally, he may miss a note or two, but his passion more than makes up for his minor mistakes. This song has been recorded countless times, but very few renditions can hold a candle to those of the master.
Modern bluegrass fans who are ignorant of the past may have a slight difficulty digesting the contents of this release. Only one song lasts longer than three minutes, and some numbers don’t even cross the two-minute mark. Listeners may chuckle at guest vocalist Melissa Monroe’s exaggerated twang, and Joe Stuart’s fiddle often seems to teeter on the edge of proper pitch. Undoubtedly, our ears have been spoiled by the legions of current virtuoso musicians who have embraced and enhanced bluegrass music. However, our lust for bluegrass perfection cannot overlook the man who invented the art form, and this concert documents the origins of his innovative brand of music.
When listening to Hank Williams’ "I Saw the Light," one hears the true essence of bluegrass music, a genre born deep in the valleys of Appalachia. Here are five musicians standing around picking and singing the Gospel in a uniquely countrified, Southern way that comes straight from the soul. The contemporary Yankee transplants who have adopted Monroe’s art form may be able to pick with blazing speed and sing with faux Southern dialects, but they’ll never duplicate his authenticity. Live at Mechanics Hall cuts straight to the core of bluegrass, and what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart.

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