Sunday, July 17, 2011

A class act? Del yeah!

One evening last week, the husband, the kid, and I made our hurried, scrambling way to the South Hills to witness a bluegrass legend: the Del McCoury Band. Del and the boys were playing in one of a string of giant stone churches atop Washington Road; the event was a fund-raiser for both a youth organization that began at our church, and for a group for kids based in Dormont, I think.

Anyway, for days before making a decision, we went back and forth about whether to go. Todd loves this guy and his music, I like him too, he's known all through the music industry as the guy who brought back and re-energized bluegrass music, other artists laud and revere him, etc. But the timing couldn't be much worse for us, both schedule-wise and spending-wise. Still, it was for a good cause, and we both knew we might never get such an opportunity so close to home again.

So we scarfed down dinner and jumped into the car. We just made it, tickets were still available, and we got decent seats. The huge, beautifully appointed church was warm and getting warmer, but no one cared too much. We parked ourselves near a fan standing in an outer walkway and waited with anticipation. I took a quick look around at the crowd, a mostly middle-aged to older gathering with a smattering of young adults, a number of families, and a handful of small children sprinkled here and there (ours among them).

Then the lights dimmed, the resident pastor addressed the crowd briefly and told us no video was permitted, and the show began. McCoury and his crew walked onto the small stage, all dressed in suits with ties, carrying their beautifully shined, perfectly tuned instruments.

Del himself addressed their audience at first and many times throughout the show. He was a white-haired, well-groomed man with a kind-hearted, quirky sense of humor; he explained at one point that he'd worked with Bill Monroe (father of bluegrass music) in the early 60s, so I figured Del had to be at least 70. He joked several times about his mind and how it's not what it used to be, but then would tease us that he could only remember the songs that he liked best or the ones that weren't as challenging to play. He spoke to the crowd often, affably and comfortably, telling anecdotes about his past experience, other performers, and the history of the genre. I got the feeling that whether playing a small show inside a church, or performing at Carnegie Hall (which they have), this guy would be the same. In a word, he was delightful.

The other members of the group were clean-cut, well-spoken men, two of whom happened to be named McCoury as well (Del's sons, I'm sure); the youngest appeared to be no more than 30. Each of them was a consummate musical genius, bringing forth unbelievably complex, blisteringly fast melodies from their strings with ease, then switching to quieter, slower tones, then back to traditional driving bluegrass rhythms. The topper, of course, was that in addition to their unbelievable mastery of their instruments, they all could sing fabulously well, and in perfect harmony. While they played.

Even if you abhor this type of music (and I used to really despise it, I'll confess), you could not argue that these fellows are amazingly talented, multi-faceted musicians. Remember this type of entertainer? The dancers/singers/musicians of yesteryear? The type of groups and individuals who looked nice and respectable, who had layers of talent, humility, and good manners on stage to boot? Del and his band covered a couple of tunes, talked about some of the songwriters whose work they'd covered at other shows, and in every instance the man had only good things to say about each of those artists. How refreshing is that, eh? I'll bet I will never read a stupid news story about Del twittering some unkind statements to a competitor, or posting something unflattering on his Facebook wall about another musician. And the band played a long time, two sets, plus a few more songs as an encore. With the suits and ties on the whole time, mopping their sweaty foreheads while they thanked us all for coming. For a charitable show that I'm certain could not have been too profitable for them, if they saw any profit at all.

At one point, Del asked for the mikes to be shut off, and they performed an amazing, quietly moving song about getting down on your knees and praying. There was no pretense, no drama, just heartfelt rendering of words and notes. These folks were, and are, the real deal, or putting on such a good show that they bamboozled me—a scathing skeptic—with ease.

I am so, so glad we went to the trouble to attend. It was rushed, it was hot, my boy got weary before it all ended, but I left that show with hope for the future of entertainment. There are still class acts in the world, even in America. You won't often find them in the headlines, but you can find them.


Here's a little sampling of Del and the boys. Sorry you missed them.

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