Concert highlights: Ralph Stanley, 8/10/2015

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.

Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.

I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.

This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.

She does now.

Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”

When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.

But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.

Ralph1

I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.

Dick Van Dyke stars in Dustbowl Revival video

Let everyone else rhapsodize about Taylor Swift and her glam big-star gal-pal “Bad Blood” music video avengers. It can’t hold hold a samurai sword to the Dustbowl Revival’s “Never Had to Go.”

The Venice, Cali.-based bluegrass/gospel/pre-war blues/New Orleans swing band’s first single from its fourth full-length album With a Lampshade On–due from Signature Sounds Recordings on July 21–is fine enough on its own, but it makes for a sprightly video thanks to the still spry participation of the one and only Dick Van Dyke.

Did I say still spry? The man’s 89, for Pete’s sake, and doesn’t look any older than me! And moves a whole lot better! He could probably perfectly still trip over the ottoman in the living room of The Dick Van Dyke Show and look none the worse for wear.

The “Never Had to Go” clip commences with Dick dropping the needle on a scratchy LP, then cuts to the Dustbowlers performing the lively tune on the patio. Dick turns to his wife–his real wife, Arlene, at their real house–and tries to get her to dance with him, as vocalist Liz Beebe smiles at him from outside. But Arlene is busy cooking lunch and ignores him, even as he continues to coax her by dancing with a stuffed bear, playing a toy accordion and guitar, and mugging and clowning and reminding us what an extaordinary performer he is–and what a joy it is to see him again and in such great shape. Indeed, he’s so sweetly persistent that Arlene eventually gives in and shows herself a light-footed dancer in her own right.

And while it’s such an upbeat tune and lively performance, the video is not without suspense: Dick and the Dustbowlers are interacting with each other throughout, but it’s always in quickly intercut separate shots and never together in the same one, leading you to feel cheated in that for whatever reason—cheap budget constraints, most likely-they did their work at different times and in different places. But sure enough, Dick and Arlene come outside dancing in front of Dustbbowl Revival in the last half-minute, leaving all of them–and us–thoroughly satisfied.

Concert Highlights–Del McCoury Band with David Grisman at City Winery, 4/17/14

Del McCoury said early on that he didn’t want to repeat any of the songs from the previous night’s first of two shows at City Winery. According to Del McCoury Band bassist Alan Bartram, he didn’t.

Alan, incidentally, also mentioned during the show how thrilled he was to see it spotlighted in New York magazine. Turns out he’s a longtime subscriber.

Speaking of magazines, the band had been to Relix earlier in the day, and had already done “a lot of picking,” said Ronnie McCoury. Del noted, too, that he’d spent a lot of time at the Winery “downstairs with the barrels.” He seemed happier about that visit than the one at Relix.

The first half of the show was all McCoury Band. They did their version of Dylan’s “Walk Out In the Rain,” actually from the 1995 album Ronnie & Rob McCoury. It’s as good a Dylan cover as there is, and Ronnie sounds a lot like Del singing it.

Del prefaced the performance of his 2008 album titletrack Moneyland by noting that John Herald’s manager had sent it to him shortly after Herald died (an apparent suicide in 2005).

Herald was one of the major players in New York City’s bluegrass scene, having formed the Greenbriar Boys in 1959. I was lucky to meet him when he was a key part of  Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry in the late ‘90s in the East Village.

 

Another highlight came with another McCoury album titletrack—last year’s “The Streets of Baltimore” cover of Bobby Bare’s classic 1966 country hit. As Del explained, he had lived in Maryland for a time, when he was playing with late bluegrass upright bass great Jack Cooke.

Determining after that no one in the audience was from Baltimore, Del opened it up to requests: “You paid to get in here, I didn’t,” he said. “We should do something you want to hear.” It was “High on a Mountain,” his 1972 album titletrack, and then he brought out David Grisman.

Grisman related how he met Del at Del’s first show with Bill Monroe (he played five-string banjo) in the spring of 1963 at NYU, where Grisman was a student. He and Del then sang the Monroe Brothers’ “Nine Pound Hammer,” Grisman on mandolin and Del on guitar. From their Del & Dawg album of ‘90s jams, they performed “Country Boy Rock & Roll.” Marty Stuart also does a great job of the Reno and Smiley country classic:

Also from Del & Dawg came “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Walkin’ the Dawg” and the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”

Grisman scored by pointing out how late-night TV never mentions the Carter Family, and that “any financial advisor will tell you to put some of your money in CDs.” He was also the most visual guy on stage, a big, gentle bear of a man in gray shirt and slacks to match his long hair and beard, positioned in between Ronnie in a black suit and Del in a light one.

He would turn to his left to share vocals with Del, then turn to his right to trade mandolin licks with Ronnie, rocking physically while Ronnie stood and smiled—a striking balance in appearance and performing style.

Del and Dawg will now tour together, while Rob completes his first solo CD.