The Del McCoury Band at Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre
“I Need More Time,” came the call from the audience.
“So do I,” Del McCoury said with a smile before granting the song request, one of many times the 79-year-old godfather of bluegrass did as he was asked during his concert with his Del McCoury Band at Chillicothe’s Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre.
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians and surrounded by trees on a spectacular summer evening, Sugarloaf – usually used for outdoor drama and outfitted with a small, makeshift stage – proved the ideal place to hear traditional mountain music on a Sunday evening. Though the place was only half-full – an unpardonable sin – audience members were upbeat and enthusiastic throughout the evening as McCoury and his bandmates, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, played for 100 celebratory minutes that left the 500 or so in attendance on their feet and yelling for more even as a post-concert mandolin raffle began.
Unplugged and using mics for instrumental amplification, band members were in constant motion, strategically positioning themselves for maximum effect on solos and harmony vocals.
Dressed in a tan suit and with a shock of white hair, the elder McCoury stood apart from his dark-haired compatriots in their black suits. But he treated them as equals, giving Ronnie the chance to lead the band on “Bluegrass Breakdown,” featuring Rob on an instrumental solo track – and doing the same for Carter – and giving the banjoist a rare vocal turn on “Nashville Cats,” while ceding control of the mic to Bartram for “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight.”
But Del was the obvious star of the show, his acoustic guitar cutting through the music every time such a riff was necessary, and hitting high notes most men can’t reach in their 30s let alone on the cusp of their 80s. He was in a playful mood and granted so many requests, he good-naturedly stumbled over lyrics to long-dormant tracks such as “40 Acres and a Fool” and “Blackjack County Chains.”
But it didn’t faze McCoury – who reacted with smiles and laughter – and it didn’t faze the audience – who reacted with loving applause and cheers. And the setlist stalwarts were flawlessly executed. These included the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Cats,” Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and the traditional “Rain and Snow,” which the Dead Heads in the crowd – and there were many – surely appreciated.
Despite decrying the life of a working musician – “to be on the road, you have to have CDs and to have CDs, you have to be on the road,” Del said as he introduced songs from the just-released Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass– the bandleader clearly enjoys playing and traveling because, as he said, he could just stay at home and play the Grand Ole Opry exclusively. He was all smiles as he engaged in soaring, four-part harmony with the band and exchanged good-natured banter with the audience.
Things came to a head, appropriately, given it was the seventh day, with “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray,” as Rob left the stage briefly so the remaining four musicians could sing alone in heavenly harmony. “White House Blues” – an up-tempo retelling of President McKinley’s assassination – ended things with a delicious juxtaposition.
Nathan Stanley – grandson of Dr. Ralph – opened the show with an hour-long performance that would have blown anyone but the Del McCoury Band off the stage. Backed by a three-man, one-woman band consisting of guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin, Stanley – himself a guitarist – is a powerful vocalist and colorful performer who dressed in a red, sequined jacket and often yelled “yeah” off-mic when his band was really cookin’.
Having no problem carrying the heavy weight his name puts on his shoulders, Stanley played tracks from his most-recent album Controversial Man, including the tribute “He’ll Always be Papaw to Me” and choice covers including “Satisfied Mind,” “Act Naturally,” “My Main Trial is Yet to Come” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Most importantly, Stanley and his band played these songs exceedingly well and actually managed to add something to the evening that already had everything a bluegrass lover could ask for with McCoury’s band headlining.