Concert Review- Del McCoury Band
The Egg, Albany, NY - 10/14/06
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, October 19, 2006

Del McCoury Band -The Egg -10/14/06

Del McCoury, a North Carolina-born, Pennsylvania-raised bluegrass player, was content with his thrice-weekly gig at a Baltimore club in 1963 when Bill Monroe hired him as a pickup banjoist and baritone singer for a concert at New York University. Impressed, Monroe called him afterward to offer him an audition for his band, but McCoury wasn’t interested—until a friend told him that some people would kill for the job. He reconsidered, tried out, and got the gig. For about a year he worked as a guitarist and singer for Monroe, and a major career in bluegrass was launched. On Saturday, the lean, silver-haired 67-year-old whom the Washington Post 

hailed as “a national treasure” brought his sons Rob and Ronnie on Scruggs-style banjo and mandolin, fiddler Jason Carter, and new addition Alan Bartram on string bass to a packed Egg for a stellar 90-minute show that blended music old and new.

McCoury’s brand of bluegrass is traditional in instrumentation, but forward-looking in composition. Like the guitarists in Monroe’s former lineups, he doesn’t flatpick lead breaks, leaving the soloing to the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. His originals, though, often go beyond the three-chord songwriting that characterized the genre in its early years and into terrain that back then would have been considered harmonic heresy. Although his voice is a bit thinner than Monroe’s or Ralph Stanley’s, he sings masterfully, seamlessly leaping into falsetto or holding long, vibrato-less notes dead on pitch.

The band delivered songs about love, drinking, murder, motorcycles, and Jesus, and tore through hotdogging instrumentals. They opened with “Travelin’ Teardrop Blues,” an uptempo love song that began like a standard bluegrass number but zipped through unconventional chord changes in the chorus. On the more traditionally styled “Lilly Hoskins,” Ronnie McCoury sang lead and contributed a fine mandolin solo.

In most types of country music, bluegrass included, a nod to the bottle is de riguer, so Del obliged on vocals with Glenn Sutton’s “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” for which he had written an additional verse. “Backslidin’ Blues” depicted a fellow in a bar losing a battle with John Barleycorn, and featured some sassy fiddling from Carter.

Reaching beyond the country repertoire, Del sang superbly on Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a paean to a classic motorcycle.

Bluegrass being from the Bible Belt, the band played two sacred songs by Albert Brumley, “I’ll Put On a Crown and Walk Around” and “Led by the Master’s Hand.” from their new gospel disc, The Promised Land. Breaking with tradition, though, they performed them with the full band rather than just vocals, guitar and mandolin.

For instrumentals, “Hillcrest Drive,” a pedal-to-the-metal mandolin solo composed by Ronnie, stood out, as did the Earl Scruggs banjo showpiece “Dear Old Dixie.”

Apropos of Halloween, they encored with three songs, beginning with the spooky “Snake in the House.”

The opening act, Virginia sextet King Wilkie, is among the new generation of acoustic bands. Their 40-minute set ranged from bluegrass to Appalachian old-timey to country to blues. Although strong vocally, their instrumental chops, with the exception of a fiery blues guitar break on “Wrecking Ball,” were weak to nonexistent. If they want any cred on the bluegrass circuit, they’ll have to develop soloing skills.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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