Del McCoury Band, the Gibson Brothers
Egg, Nov. 21
high, lonesome sound”—it’s used to describe bluegrass music
so often that it has practically devolved into cliché. Yet,
when attending most bluegrass shows in this day and age, one
will notice that the music is usually delivered in a communal,
friendly and appreciative atmosphere. This was no exception
when Del McCoury and crew, plus the Gibson Brothers, rolled
into the Egg on Sunday night for a warm, spirited performance.
A good 700 appreciative bluegrass fans packed the theater
to capacity. On their own, both the Del McCoury Band and the
Gibson Brothers are top-notch performers (McCoury and band
being the road- seasoned vets and the Gibson Brothers the
young lions) and could pull a decent crowd. Together, they
represented one of the hottest bluegrass bills to hit our
area in a long time.
Headliner McCoury has connections that go back to bluegrass’
designated source, Bill Monroe (he played with Monroe in the
early ’60s). But he and his band, which consists of his two
sons (Ronnie and Robbie), have also played with restless Americana
rebel Steve Earle (the result of their collaboration is 1999’s
Live, McCoury is a down-to-earth, gentle presence, with a
high shock of white hair and politely youthful manner. He
coaxed requests from the crowd, and came through on most of
them, he and his band huddling and shifting around the two
mics, their orchestrated movements determining the layers
in the organic mix. It was the kind of aural lesson in acoustics
that sound- engineering school just doesn’t teach. In typical
concession to bluegrass formality, Del and band were decked
out neatly in matching gray suits.
The group pulled from their newest album, It’s Just the
Night, including the slinky, metaphysical title track
and the spirited “Let an Old Race Horse Run.” Ronnie pitched
his voice into a high wail for a spot-on take of Monroe’s
“Body and Soul” as his dad huddled behind them changing a
broken string. They also pitched into some heartwarming gospel
on “I Can Hear the Angels Singing.” Befitting the form, there
was plenty instrumental spitfire, but the dominant impression
was left by the group’s gorgeous multipart harmonies.
Openers the Gibson Brothers (who grew up in New York state,
near the Canadian border) showed that they were worthy of
all of the buzz they’ve received in recent years, offering
a sterling take on the Band’s “Ophelia” and a nimble, lightning-speed
instrumental romp through Flatt & Scruggs’ “Shuckin’ the
Corn.” The duo also firmly planted themselves in the great
lineage of bluegrass “brother” groups with a moving turn on
the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan’s Jeweled Crown,” as well as their
own compositions. Most poignantly (and at the audience’s suggestion),
the Gibsons came back out for the McCoury Band’s encore, pitting
their newcomer harmonies against the acoustic muscle of one
of the finest bluegrass outfits on the road today.
a Country Girl
Pepsi Arena, Nov. 17
The two biggest things about Dolly Parton were on triumphant
display at the Pepsi last week. They’ve served her well for
almost 40 years, and continued to do so, in impressive fashion.
Of course, I’m referring to her voice and her songs.
Yeah, that was a lousy boob joke, but a good way to raise
a couple of points. One, Parton’s songwriting skills and vocal
prowess are still formidable. Two, Parton herself told a number
of boob jokes during her performance, all perfectly terrible,
and, yet, kinda endearing in the sense that, yes, after almost
40 years, they’re still an issue. (And we’re still
a profoundly strange culture when it comes to female breasts.)
Parton has had a lot of hits, and the set list drew on all
stages of her career. It’s always revealing which songs a
longtime performer isn’t interested in anymore. Parton tossed
off the other-woman classic “Jolene” and the million-selling
pop hit “Here You Come Again” in a medley, and joked that
she wished Jolene had just gone ahead and stole her husband
all those years ago. On the other hand, “I Will Always Love
You” was given the deluxe treatment. Parton prefaced the song
with the amusing story of how Elvis had wanted to record it,
but, while thrilled, she ended up refusing to let him. Apparently,
it was standard procedure that if the King sang your tune,
he owned half of it. The bucketfuls of cash from the Whitney
Houston version certainly redeemed Dolly’s cool business sense.
While the highlights included such Parton standards as the
still-touching “Coat of Many Colors” and “My Tennessee Mountain
Home,” both of which were prominently featured near the end
of the show, her best moment came with “The Grass Is Blue,”
a newer Parton song also covered by Norah Jones. Dolly just
played the piano and sang—it was a disarming moment.
Which is not to say the evening didn’t end with showbiz flair.
Dolly ran around the stage playing every instrument under
the sun for her gender-corrected take on John Denver’s “Thank
God I’m a Country Boy.”
The opening act, the Grascals, played a hell of a bluegrass
set punctuated with less-impressive straight country numbers.
They also doubled as half of Parton’s impressive 10-piece
To end on a personal note—which seems entirely appropriate
in a review of a country show—I’d like to thank the nice lady
sitting next to me for letting me peruse the glossy, oversized
souvenir book for which she had shelled out $30. I didn’t
pester; she offered without my asking, explaining that she
had been to many concerts where she hadn’t been able to buy
one of these.
With considerably less appreciation, I’d like to include a
shout-out to a young woman I’ll call the Berkshire Banshee,
so named because she, at one point early on, invited Dolly
to come to the Berkshires. Seated a few rows behind me, the
Banshee couldn’t restrain herself from screaming “I love you,
Dolly” over and over, and tunelessly, loudly warbling along
with some of the songs. For future reference, Miss, nobody
showed up to hear you squawk.