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Oh the humanity: Ralph Stanley at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
Photo: Martin Benjamin

Elder Statesman
By Erik Hage

Ralph Stanley
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 26

Near the end of his set last Sunday at the Troy Music Hall, Ralph Stanley invited opener Iris DeMent back out to add some vocal punch to the Clinch Mountain Boys’ harmonies—and it prodded the evening from merely good to great. DeMent, in jean skirt and sensible shoes, has a high arching wobble of a voice that belies her dry demeanor and sultry librarian prettiness. And on a rendition of the traditional “Angel Band,” everything coalesced; it was that crystalline moment that Ralph and co. had been swimming toward all night and never quite reaching. There had been a glimmer here and there, but DeMent helped them finally bring it home, her high tenor lifting them along. Stanley even made veteran guitarist James Shelton repeat a statement he had made to Ralph away from the mike: “That’s the best I’ve ever heard that sung.”

Not to say that it wasn’t a fascinating evening up until that point. Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys are a beguiling mix of humanity and formality. They strode out decked in open-road-style white Stetsons and homogenous semiformal outfits (save Dr. Stanley, a bantam rooster in a spangled, shoulder-padded black suit). For the first 25 minutes of the set, Stanley stood a little back of the musical line, surveying his troops like a diminutive general, hands clasped demurely in front of him. Between numbers, he ran down introductions to the musicians (who were a range of ages, from a teenage fiddler on up to 76-year-old Stanley), and barely sang. Finally, he came to his own introduction: “I could stand here and talk all night and not say enough about this man,” he joked by way of third person, maintaining his typical stoicism. He then launched into a rollicking take on one of his calling cards, “Little Maggie,” that husky little bark of his filling the airy hall.

Beyond the rehearsed elements and shtick of the collective was a whole other element made up of unheard exchanges: the telegraphed glances, the series of twitches, the muttered conversations and suggestions away from the mike—all under the watchful eye of Stanley. In the tradition of Bill Monroe, the old lion Stanley runs a tight ship, and some of that tightness was palpable in the group members. (Playing for Stanley is the baseball equivalent of “the show” for bluegrassers; this ain’t the farm team.) There were a few hoarse voices as well, Stanley included: He explained that he had been a bit overzealous with his contribution to an upcoming Carter Family tribute album.

All in all, though, it was a great to be in the presence of Ralph Stanley for an eve. Highlights included anything he took a lead vocal on, including a shaky “O, Death,” that nonetheless induced pin-dropped hush (the benevolent rafters of the Music Hall are seasoned on such moments). Elder Clinch Mountain Boy Jack Cooke was also in fine throat, offering a strong “Long Black Veil.” At one point, Stanley pulled out a folded sheet of paper with lyrics on it, explaining, in his hard little crackle of a speaking voice, that he knew the words but “when I get before a big crowd, I get scared and forget.” And there’s the endearing humanity behind the formality: The last surviving vocalist of bluegrass’s first generation sometimes just gets scared and forgets.

Stumbling In

Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller
The Palace Theater, Oct. 26

Emmylou Harris made an immense left turn in 1995 with the release of Wrecking Ball, an astonishing record of darkness and hope, atmosphere and smoke. She followed with 1999’s Spyboy, a live set that went even further in the realm of mystery, highlighting the monstro-guitar work of Buddy Miller and visceral drumming of Brady Blade. This wasn’t a vocalist’s record, as one would expect from Harris, but a band record, and a volatile one at that. The next year brought Red Dirt Girl, which continued in the vein, but Harris, for the first time in her long and remarkable career, wrote the lion’s share of the material.

Her new one, Stumble Into Grace, marks a departure: The album is lighter, more conventional. Even the liner notes appear in light beige and bathed in sunlight. The disk has its quiet charm, grace and beguiling moments, to be sure—when you hear too much Fender Rhodes piano cheerily choogling along, you know the mystery’s pretty much gone.

So when Harris showed up with Spyboy at the Palace last Sunday, and performed most of Stumble Into Grace, the result was oddly schizophrenic. This roaring and sublime ensemble often transformed into singer with backing musicians, with Spyboy plodding through pedestrian arrangements of thoroughly conventional songs. Other times, and even on some of the new material, the group soared into that elegiac realm they alone, together, own.

Not that this made it a bad show, or even bothered anyone but me. Harris looked marvelous and happy (repeatedly making fun of her image as the Angel of Down), and sang great—with that voice, that fragile but clarion miracle of an instrument. Along with most of the new disk, Harris ventured liberally back to her time with Gram Parsons (“Love Hurts”), her honky-tonk years (“Two More Bottles of Wine”), and through the transformational material of the late ’90s.

Guitarist Buddy Miller opened with a trio that included Spyboy’s Blade on the drums. Some people say too much of one thing ain’t good for you, but I can’t get enough of Buddy Miller, baby. The group played fast and loose with country weepers, forgotten soul classics, and various crisp tunes by Miller and his wife, Julie. Miller, who looks like the guy who should be running the backhoe out back, made righteously unholy sounds out of his weird hot- rodded Italian ’60s guitars and space-age electric mandolin, and sang with one of the most high lonesome yeowls every to grace the planet. What a dude.

—Paul Rapp

Ain’t That America

David Bromberg Band, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
The Egg, Oct. 24

Of course David Bromberg has to be part of an American Roots Music series, as he was last Friday at the Egg. He’s flown under the pop-star radar for more than 30 years, just as so many core roots-music performers have done for the last century. We’re so busy enjoying this music in retrospect that it’s easy to forget the living performers who have inhaled this country’s amazing musical variety, and forged identities that celebrate the assimilation.

Thus Bromberg. His band’s set lists haven’t changed much over the years, but the repertory is so shrewdly chosen and varied that it hardly matters. He can swerve from Blind Blake into Conway Twitty by way of the Grateful Dead (as he in fact did last Friday night) and hardly turn a hair, infusing each song with a mixture of jazz, R&B and bluegrass that destroys the manufactured boundaries of musical categories. In short: his stuff rocks.

Although the crowd at the sold-out house was enthusiastic, they weren’t loosening up any too quickly. Then again, the Egg isn’t a venue that provokes an urge to get up and dance. Bromberg slipped a couple of area locality references into his vocals early in the first set, references that prompted no reaction. So he kept the numbers on the rocking side, especially in the second set. Better still, he revealed to us the dark side of opener Jay Ungar, allowing the PBS darling of sentimental Americana to rip loose on the electric mandolin in songs like “I’ll Take You Back.”

As the first set opened, Ungar and Molly Mason were featured as bandmates, she on guitar and he switching between fiddle and mandolin (electric and acoustic). Otherwise, Bromberg’s companions were long, long, longtime bandmates Butch Amiot (bass), Richard Crooks (drums) and Jeff Wisor (fiddle), with Peter Ecklund, John Firman and Curtis Linberg on brass. On numbers with elaborate backing vocals, Nancy Josephson (Mrs. Bromberg) and Mason joined Wisor and Amiot.

Bromberg is a burn-ass guitarist. There’s never been any doubt about that, and it hardly warrants repeating. But it’s difficult not to turn utterly slack-jawed as he rips through seemingly effortless solos, on acoustic and electric instruments, before switching to fiddle for a foot-stomping reel. As a vocalist, he’s unique. His querulous voice is perfectly suited to the lost-love blues he likes to sing, a voice that can suddenly keen into falsetto or growl with ursine anger. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s never unconvincing.

He opened his first set with “Get Up and Go,” a blistering original that segued into a medley of fiddle tunes; it was deftly balanced by the second set’s starter, Blind Blake’s “Early This Morning,” performed as a solo with acoustic guitar. The lament of the bittersweet “Kaatskill Serenade,” another Bromberg original (it turns out to be about Rip Van Winkle) was immediately soothed by, of all things, Phil Spector’s “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

Blues numbers abounded. Bessie Smith’s “Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair” and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” were among the songs that finally got the audience up and dancing. Ungar and Mason relaxed the R&B grip at the end of the first set with originals like “The Lovers’ Waltz” and “Ashokan Farewell,” but even they turned up the heat a little with Leadbelly’s “Relax Your Mind” (the title track from their new CD).

Bromberg’s horn section is fiendishly good; although dominated by Firman’s saxophone solos, Ecklund (cornet) and Linberg (trombone) got their jazz-tinged voices in there for some lively exchanges. And Ecklund’s horn arrangement was one of the sparks that fired Bromberg’s “Sharon,” thrown in near the end of the concert just when you didn’t think it could get any livelier. An improbable, exuberant vocal, fantastic solos and guitar work that ranged from the breathtaking to the hilarious—you can’t classify it. You can only surrender to it. That’s American music.

—B.A. Nilsson


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