Del McCoury Band, Princess Theatre, Decatur, AL – 2/14
The neon glow of the Princess Theatre sign has welcomed patrons to the art deco styled movie house for well over seventy years. Becoming a performing arts center in 1978, the 600 plus seat auditorium has hosted national performing acts ranging from Arlo Guthrie to Ray Charles. As the epicenter of a downtown revitalization project, the Princess is surrounded by bars pouring fashionable microbrews and eclectic bistros serving haute fare. As show time neared on a sleepy Thursday night, the empty street soon became crowded as folks streamed into the historic theatre staffed by little old ladies offering programs for an evening with Del McCoury.
This particular greeting card holiday provided an opportunity to impart the love of traditional bluegrass with a diverse set of music lovers. Running the gamut of clean shaven grandfathers wearing pressed overalls to bearded heads in Northface jackets, the congregants shared a mutual affection for time-honored string music. Each live music experience takes on a personality of its own and, in this case, the tone was reminiscent of an “ole timey opry show” at the Ryman. Dressed in traditional black suits, highly polished wingtips, and impeccably starched white shirts, Del and the fellows took the stage for a two hour run of traditional favorites, gospel songs, and audience requests.
It was immediately clear that everyone was in the right place on Valentine’s Day when Del stated that “We’ve got a lot of murder ballads, but not a whole lot of love songs.” The evening was chock full of McCoury favorites which showcased the vocal and instrumental prowess of five seasoned professionals. Del and the boys ripped through a collection of songs made popular throughout the band’s thirty plus year career. In typical bluegrass fashion each member took turns showcasing their skills in round robin fashion as Del’s poignant tenor led the way.
The Princess Theatre set was a conglomeration of the McCoury’s greatest hits as songs such as “Nashville Cats” and “Rain and Snow” highlighted the early going. Driven by Rob’s banjo rolls, Del’s voice blazed with soulful ambition as Ronnie’s mandolin work accentuated upbeat phrases. Complete with stirring fiddle licks and walking bass lines on the one and three, Carter and Bartram rounded out the old fashion bluegrass sound to produce seamless arrangements of foot tapping melodies.
The performance was highlighted by the connection between Del and the audience. Earlier in the evening, Del hinted at a six hour show, but later dispelled this, noting that such a performance would end well “past my bedtime.” Del’s continued friendly banter warmed the crowd complimenting them on their good looks” and imparting that “last night we played for some ugly people”. Smattered among songs, repartee from the stage provided acumen into the bands’ interworking, historical anecdotes about previous exploits, and personal insight into the collective psychology.
The second half of the show took on a high energy quality as the fellows worked through popular numbers such as “I Feel the Blues Moving In,” recorded by Dolly Parton in the early 90’s, as each member demonstrated their respective chops. Banjo ripples, mandolin tickles, and sauntering bass lines intersected guitar noodles and fiddle draws in melodious agreement. “52 Vincent Black Lighting,” a song about robbing someone to get a motorcycle, engrossed the audience; a version thick with mandolin scrapes and thumping base lines which drew one of the heaviest ovations for the evening, clearly a fan favorite.
Jason Carter’s efforts especially stood out during the evening. Fresh from his January stint with the Yonder Mountain String Band, Carter took the lead on “What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor” which he described as “a little about love, a little about death, and a lot about moonshine”. Continuing with classics such as “Hello Lonely,” high and lonesome harmonies ascended through the rafters as brothers Ronnie and Rob dueled to a spirited conclusion.
One of those appropriate Valentine’s songs, “Eli Renfroe,” made its appearance late in the evening, a murder ballad about a man who kills his wife with a bowie knife, complete with intricate mandolin oeuvre and erudite fiddling, garnered a collective smile from the auditors. Toward the end of the evening the McCourys transitioned to “gospel hour” complete with four part harmonies on “Get Down on your Knees and Pray.” Drawing the evening to a close, Del related “We’re having a lot of fun and hope you are too” which drew quite an animated response.
Returning to the stage for a final curtain call, the McCourys wound up a night of traditional Americana to boisterous applause from the overjoyed crowd. After the show, the band took time to converse with fans and sign autographs. In the end, The Del McCoury Band’s ability to purvey a traditional bluegrass experience while crossing generational and social bounds is one that should be celebrated. The willingness to expand one’s horizons beyond the norm has led to a much richer experience for music fans that may not have necessarily discovered the McCoury experience.