The Del McCoury Band, Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA – 6/21
The Tractor Tavern isn’t exactly known for being a quiet place. Crowds don’t get rowdy per se – I’ve never witnessed moshing – but animated chatter is present in healthy doses. Yet respect was in style for the final night of back-to-back gigs for the Del McCoury Band. With breaths held in near nervous anticipation, there was no need for the quintet to plug in, nor cause for them to share more than a single mic. When the group delved into "Blackjack County Chain" during the second set, the silence was almost eerie, dropped pins most definitely could’ve been heard, and really, enough said.
From the moment Del and gang took the stage until they leaned forward for their final bow of the evening, the audience stood in sheer reverence, and rightly so. Onstage, the group effectively executed a time warp back to any Southern town circa 1960, playing the part with perfectly pressed suits and neatly greased hair. It’s a tradition preserved by few these days as new bluegrass bands take on elements of different genres (not a bad thing) and at 67 years old, Del’s continuing it as best he can.
Kicking it off with "Love Is A Long Road," the band quickly demonstrated its swift ability to gracefully dance around each other, taking turns at the central mic, trading instrumental solos, sharing chorus lines. Throughout the night they stayed right on top of each other, not missing a beat, one musician moving in just as the other withdrew. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle, a testament to their fluid ability to collectively work together before an audience, expanding and contracting as a single organism.
With his warm, dimpled smile, Del exuded cheerfulness, his sweet southern accent the sound of a good bedtime story. He poked fun at himself, readily admitting mistakes – forgetting the lyrics to the new "Five Flat Rocks" and starting in on Robert Cray’s "Smokin’ Gun" without the rest of the band backing him up – during the show, handling them with professional ease. Halfway through the first set, the guitarist opened the floor to requests, and the audience primarily picked the setlist for the remainder of the night. Murder ballads ("Ely Renfro") and tales regarding the road ("Never Grow Up Boy") led into "Lights On The Hill," opening up the first long jam of the evening after someone held up a sign asking for the number.
The group’s ability to launch into unplanned songs and the ease with which they did it was testament to a rare talent. There were no hints of sloppiness and in fact the quintet often bore a look of stoicism, as if their shredding fingers and detailed picking was as easy as washing the dishes, smiles registered to their faces the whole time.
An invitation to the Grand Ol’ Opry (Del’s a member) preceded "My Love Will Not Change" and Ronnie McCoury set down his mandolin for the mandola to deliver an instrumental that was nothing short of aural ecstasy and set the band a-cookin’. Fiddler Jason Carter screamed through "Lee Highway Blues," the entire song one giant solo, and the crowd roared. But "All Aboard" was perhaps the highlight of the night, as Del’s voice, sharp and cutting, tapped into some kind of universal pain that was frightening yet wonderful.
As if the music wasn’t enough, light banter and storytelling kept the crowd laughing, as Ronnie McCoury explained that "Dawg Gone" – a high-octane tune he penned with David Grisman – is in fact the statement Grisman plans to have etched on his tombstone. Prior to singing "Teardrops In My Eyes," bassist Alan Bartram admitted he’d gone sightseeing earlier in the day, where he first "saw the original Starbucks with the R-rated sign" (once upon a time the mermaid in the coffee company’s logo wore a rather revealing top) and then "took a
$14 elevator ride" (ah, the Space Needle).
For the encore Del delivered the first stanza of "When I’m 64" and then handed over the next part to the eager audience. With fans singing in unison it sounded like some kind of grand anthem, a sign that bluegrass can go Beatles. When Del finally gave into the demand for "Asheville Turnaround" he exclaimed, "I’ll tell you, you folks are hard to please."
But please he did.