The Cream of Bluegrass
Del McCoury Band & Robbie Fulks
Old Town School - Chicago
November 12, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2000, Volume 7, #1
Written by John Metzger
Bluegrass music certainly has made a comeback this year — or so it would seem. In reality, however, it never really went away. The festival circuit that first attracted Jerry Garcia and David Grisman to the genre over 35 years ago has continued to thrive and grow, and it was really only a matter of time until the style regained some recognition. There's no doubt that this was helped by Leftover Salmon's The Nashville Sessions album as well as this past summer's reunion of Béla Fleck and Sam Bush.
Yet there is one other element to the bluegrass resurgence — the group that Steve Earle lovingly has referred to as the "best bluegrass band in the business." Of course, this is the Del McCoury Band. The Mountain, their collaboration with Earle, was nothing short of a masterpiece, and they have released an exquisite album of their own, appropriately titled The Family. After all that's exactly what they are. Del's sons Ronnie and Rob handle mandolin and banjo, respectively, while fiddle player Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub round out the group and bring that same familial tightness to their interactions with the McCourys. There simply isn't a group around with more splendid harmonies or tighter instrumentation.
On November 12, Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music played host to a pair of concerts from the Del McCoury Band, and their early set was simply spectacular. Huddled around a single microphone, the band almost continuously changed places to alter the position of the individual instruments in the sound mix. The constant flux of movement only served to amplify the kaleidoscopic effect of the music. Rapid-fire mandolin flourishes gave way to intricate banjo solos, which in turn gave way to fanciful fiddle embellishments. Underneath it all was the steady, driving bass of Bub and the elder McCoury's rock-solid rhythm guitar.
The group tore into instrumentals like Red Eyes on a Mad Dog and Rawhide with feverish intensity, allowing the musicians' ornate musical interplay to stand on its own. Yet the McCourys have one other weapon in their arsenal — an astonishing ability to harmonize.
Del's high tenor glistened on the songs' verses, but when he was joined by the rest of the ensemble, the result was purely delightful. A cover of Bill Monroe's Get Down on Your Knees and Pray was turned into a rapturous spiritual, and the group transformed John Sebastian's Nashville Cats into a stirring round robin of instruments and voices that served as the perfect response to the song's panegyrical lyrics. There very well may be 1,352 bluegrass singers and pickers in Nashville, but certainly there is no finer outfit than the Del McCoury Band.
Robbie Fulks opened the show with a stripped down set that cut straight to the heart of his roots. Rather than serving up the alt-country rock for which he is perhaps best-known, Fulks instead boldly explored folk, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly styles. Consequently, he delivered a highly effective performance that showcased not only his knack for songwriting and his lyrical wit but also his talent as a guitarist.
Del McCoury Band's The Family is available from
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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box