Concertgoers got a history lesson along with their music last night at the sold-out Aladdin Theater.
The banter from two musical giants was as educational as it was comedic, when David Grisman (“The Dawg”) and Del McCoury, took the stage. As two of the most noted bluegrass players of all time, they offered context and background to every song. During one anecdote, Grisman explained that the two have known each other since they were 21-years-old, and have played many of the featured songs together since then (an explanation for their comfort and precision).
David Grisman (born March 23, 1945), and Del McCoury (born February 1, 1939), have such history that their musical connection was seemingly flawless. McCoury’s rhythm guitar technique, which employs a “boom-chuck” one-note bassline with chords on top, created a beautiful yet subtle counterpoint with Grisman’s wild, jazzy, and entirely unconventional mandolin style. Similarly, their voices shaped an interesting contrast and combination: McCoury hit every note with perfect pitch, while Grisman employed a highly stylized vocal aesthetic, sliding lazily in and out of notes. The melding of these styles, both instrumental and vocal, made for an amazing night.
Grisman, who is known for his extremely melodic, jazz-influenced style, reminded the audience that the mandolin was historically the lead instrument in traditional bluegrass, and that McCoury was one of the first to employ guitar as a lead instrument in the genre (along with other guitar heroes like Tony Rice and Earl Scruggs). Although McCoury did play mostly rhythm last night, he got his moment to shine early in the show during “G Run Blues,” a smokin’ instrumental. After that moment of super-shredding, McCoury took a more traditional rhythm role for the rest of the night.
They followed “G Run Blues” with a classic Doc Watson tune that Grisman used to play with Jerry Garcia, “I’m Troubled,” drawing the biggest crowd reaction of the night – probably because of its affiliation with the late Garcia. Next, they moved to a sub-genre of bluegrass that I was previously unaware of: “Brother-Duet.” They explained that the Brother-Duet act was a trend that started in the 1930’s and carried on into the ’60’s. Then they played an example: “Toy Heart,” by the Monroe Brothers, widely considered to be one of the first bluegrass songs of all time.
A bit later, the crowd received another classic: “Man of Constant Sorrow.” This piece was first recorded in 1913, but has been a popular bit of Americana longer than that. Although Dick Burnett originally recorded it, it was popularized by Ralph Stanley, and Grisman credited Stanley for inspiring him to play the song.
Grisman and McCoury were more than pickers and singers; they were practically comedians. Joking with the audience throughout the night, the two even laughed at their own expense, especially during “Tennessee Waltz,” when they forgot the lyrics to a verse which ironically began with the words “I remember”).
More silliness ensued when they played the lyrically baffling “I’m my Own Grandpa.”
Throats and hands raw, the audience demanded more, eventually coaxing the duo back to the stage. Grisman and McCoury closed out the night with a beautiful instrumental version of the Hebrew hymn “Shalom Aleichem.” The haunting melody means: “hello, goodbye, and peace be with you.”