Del McCoury Band's "Streets of Baltimore"
The ever-affable Del McCoury is always fun at his Del McCoury Band gigs, but he was really funny Aug. 4 at City Winery.
“I feel silly tonight,” he confessed early on, then wondered if it was due to “an eclipse moon”—though it was really three days before a full moon. And though they started on time, he noted the band's problem in getting to the venue as he looked out from the stage through its windows on Seventh Avenue and stated the obvious: “This traffic doesn’t move.”
But humor is characteristic of classic bluegrass shows, that and the business suits and ties worn by the McCoury Band musicians, all dark except for Del’s tan. The five players—Del on guitar, sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo respectively, fiddler Jason Carter and stand-up bassist Alan Bartram, also crowd around at most two vocal microphones, but usually just one and often in kaleidoscopic formations: With Carter standing far stage right, and Ronnie, Rob, Del and Bartram to his left in that order, Carter and Ronnie would typically walk over to Del's vocal mic to sing choruses, though formations were flexible depending on who sang lead.
As for singing lead, Del gave each band member an introductory vocal number, except for Carter, whose fiddling needed no further intorduction. For Ronnie it was Ernest Tubb's "Thanks a Lot," while Rob picked a tune off his new CD The 5 String Flame Thrower. As the McCoury brothers do most of the singing after Del, Bartram’s beautiful lead on Flatt & Scruggs “Some Old Day,” about a forlorn soul stuck on a chain gang and missing his mother, must have been a surprise to McCoury band newbies, though all had to be touched when he prefaced it with “I’ve never been in jail, but I do miss my mom on a regular basis.”
Introductory songs out of the way, Del opened the night up to the audience and their requests—and thereby turned the remainder of the show into total chaos.
“We’re not in order anymore!” he said, delaying many of the requests and dodging most of the others. “No, we don't do murder ballads! You wanna hear something like that?”
Of course, some of great bluegrass songs derive from murder ballads, but Del settled on the band’s great cover of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” with Del singing lead, the band then shifting into reverse-V formation with Rob leaning into the mic from the rear apex to sing the low “Nashville cats” bit of the chorus, then spreading out for soloing.
“That song about the racehorse?” Del asked after, acknowledging a request. “You’re not gonna hear it, because it's not about a racehorse!”
Indeed, the racehorse in “Let an Old Racehorse Run” is metaphorical, though they did it anyway. They also did “The Streets of Baltimore,” the Bobby Bare country classic and titletrack of their Grammy-winning 2013 album—though Del needed an assist from Ronnie in remembering the second verse. He understandably declined the request for the Osborne Brothers’ signature song “Rocky Top” (“You’ll have to wait for Bobby Osborne to hear it because no one sings it like he does!”) but did deliver his own great take on folk staple “Rain and Snow.”
And he could hardly turn down the many requests for Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which he and the band included in Del and the Boys (2001).
“We did a show recently and I didn’t talk about Richard Thompson, and a woman who saw him a week earlier came back after and said that when he does a song by someone else who wrote it, he gives credit. Then she turned around and walked off! She told me off good!”
Since then, Del added, he always makes sure to talk about Thompson.
Now 78, Del exudes the same joy of performing as Tony Bennett. He got another laugh—and audience singalong—with “I Need More Time,” a song, he joked, “that pertains to people like me.”
But he was as spry as the youngsters as they closed traditionally with a couple gospel numbers (“All Aboard” and Bill Monroe’s “Working on a Building”), the band huddling around a vocal mic while Del sang lead on his own mic. The encore was another Monroe number, “In Despair,” which the ‘60s Monroe band alumnus included on the 2012 album Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe.
“It had some songs I didn’t sing when I was with him,” Del said, “but he’d been singing songs since 1939, and to do all of them would probably take a week show!”
Then again, most if not all of the City Winery audience no doubt would have stayed.