The Del McCoury Band, The Orange Peel, Asheville, NC- 3/20
The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina has quickly become my favorite venue to see live music in all the land- the atmosphere, the sound quality, the dr, the informality and the Asheville/WNC crowds tend to make this great-sounding beautiful hall downright homey and as comfortable as they get.
Before the Del McCoury Band took the stage at The Peel on Saturday, March 20 the quintet did an extremely informal show and meet & greet at near-by record store "Sounds Familiar" just outside of Asheville. I got there late but caught the tail end of a forty-five minute set that peaked with "Vincent Black Lightning 1952", one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs. Like all their renderings of songs from outside the genre I would hear through this and the evening shows, Del & the boys' interpretations are heart-felt and timeless ones, and all their own. At the end of their afternoon show the atmosphere in the store was almost surreally down home, with all band members hanging out near the counter talking and signing and just being as enjoyable as they seem on stage for this mostly younger crowd.
It's nice to see Del have this kind of success at this point in his career, due not only to his affable demeanor and the authentic and commanding presentation of his younger cohorts but some recent savvy booking decisions. The group has appeared at Bonnaroo and toured with Phish, as well as their infamous stint as Alt-Country pioneer Steve Earle's band on the collaboration album The Mountain and subsequent tour (resulting in some great boots out there). This all contributes to the wonderfully mixed crowd he now draws.
Last time I got to sit and absorb one of Del's shows was at one of the great Winterhawk Bluegrass Festivals of the late 80's when Hot Rize was the top young band, Newgrass Revival were on there last commercial leg and Bill Monroe was still alive and kicking. If Hot Rize was the evening band with its power and passion (and trippy hilarity in it's alter-ego "Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers" mini-show mid-set) it was Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys who made the Sunday afternoon bluegrass what it probably should be- glorious musical salvation for the non-believer. I almost never go to church but when Bill lifted his arms toward the sky at the end of "I Saw The Light" and the sun broke through the clouds I guaranteed the big guy I'd visit his house right away- OK, next week, I promise. Del was somewhere in between all that that weekend- authentic and driving but not yet enjoying the wider success he eventually would. To the best of my knowledge The Del McCoury Band's line-up is intact from then and even earlier when this already great band backed up mandolin virtuoso David Grisman on his "Bluegrass Experience tour in the mid 80's. At that time Del's older son Robbie had come into his own on the banjo and his younger mandolin-playing son Ronnie was a almost a tyke, wide-eye and learning and tearing it up none-the-less.
But Bill Monroe was and always will be the father of Bluegrass Music and continues to set the curve even after his death in 1996 just 4 days shy of his 85th birthday. Del had come into HIS own playing as a Bluegrass Boy with Bill in 1963 and '64, first on banjo and later on guitar which remained his first stage instrument from then on. Towards the end of his life and after Bill Monroe death, the Bluegrass Music industry continued changing a bit. Newer bands started sounding a bit alike to my ears and a certain degree of homogenization and slicking-down started dominating the industry. This may in part be due to the advent of the Grassometer' (a system for tracking bluegrass song popularity through radio airplay) and the lure of the many bluegrass band contests judged by the same or similar minded people who believed they knew what bluegrass should sound like. Hot Rize broke up around then too; Bela Fleck and Sam Bush and Peter Rowan (also a former Bluegrass Boy) amongst other predominant bluegrass musicians of the time took decidedly less traditional musical routes. As great as it was, even the more recent Oh Brother surge seems to have waned and the number of successful new traditional bluegrass bands popping up seems to be in recession…at least we still have the great Ralph Stanley. I've seen Ralph Stanley live a few times and love his show, but I have to say none of them knocked me over like Del's at the Orange Peel the other night.
That being said, it's not hard to find an authentic sounding bluegrass band with some personality within a half-hour any night of the week around here. Asheville is where Bill Monroe assembled the first line-up of his Bluegrass Boys early in 1939; Earl Scruggs is a local boy amongst many of the great regional pickers, and bluegrass and old-timey music is not so much a commercial endeavor as it is just plain a part of life. Heck, I listened to a moving live interview with Doc Watson on local public radio station WNCW-FM while I was looking for the record store earlier that day. Doc was playing that night down the road in Spartansburg and on this given night in Asheville there happened to be two other bluegrass greats in town- Ricky Scaggs and Kentucky Thunder at the larger Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and the Orange Peel packed for The Del McCoury Band. Now that's a bluegrass town. And if Ricky Scaggs represents the top of the slicked-down' Nashville bluegrass heap then Del is father earth. Having clearly benefited from staying in tact for such an extended period of time, the Del McCoury Bands' sound is as organic and true as it gets, reminding me of older reggae music…emanating from a people-commercial without sounding commercial, polished without sounding polished and ever so vital. It was this and their song choices that really resonated and proved new music can still be timeless. I wondered several times through the show if it was the now mature McCoury boys' influence in choosing songs that has brought this band so far from the last time I saw them, or could Del be THAT cool? Probably, but I couldn't help feeling that young Ronnie will someday carry this important torch that Bill Monroe lit and his father now ably carries after his father is gone.
Throughout the set the songs spoke similar themes, all of which seemed to come right from Del's heart whether he penned them or not. He delivered in earnest songs of love both thriving ("Body & Soul" and the great new local' love saga "The Asheville Turnaround") and lost ("Traveling Tear Drop Blues", "Lonesome Road"); songs of personal boundaries ("Count Me Out", "My Love Will Not Change", "Dry My Tears And Move On") and understanding and comfort ("It's Just The Night", "City Of Stone"). Old public domain songs were well represented ("Cotton Eyed Joe", "Cold Rain & Snow") as well as the more modern, such as John Sebastian's take on the Nashville music scene, "Nashville Cats". But perhaps there is no better example of how Del can make a newer song from outside the genre his own as his version of Richard Thompson's great English motorcycle/love saga "Vincent Black Lightning 1952". What a great song, and one that I always thought represented the best of modern English folk music- Del & company naturally turn this story into an American one. After teasing and finally delivering this crowd-pleaser, the band tore up Bill Monroe's signature instrumental "Rawhide" and hit the highway. A fitting close to this collection of bluegrass music performed by the present day bluegrass family patriarch.
The Del McCoury band is clearly on the top of its game now and bluegrass just doesn't get any better, more original or more enjoyable than this. The transitions in their instrument arrangements were effortless and Del's delivery and rapport with this sometimes wild but respectful crowd was loose and engaging. This is the real deal and should not be missed if you love roots music and get the chance. Just don't try to sound like him.