Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Del McCouray Band with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Friday 15th April, 2010, Performing Arts Center, Appleton, Wisconsin

Preservation Hall Jazz Band + Del McCouray Band

Having only just arrived in Wisconsin, I got a pleasantly unexpected call from Sarah Ludeman (she of Irene's Garden, formerly The Stellectrics) to let me know that she had a spare ticket for this concert. "Del who?" I wasn't particularly bothered, as her sister Jenny (another Irene's Gardener), plus Gavin, Stef and Jimmer from Sloppy Joe, were going to be coming along, and it seemed like a great opportunity to spend time with old friends.

At the farmhouse in Amherst, before heading east, Gavin hurriedly showed me a picture of a young Del McCouray playing guitar with a bluegrass band, as well as mentioning some kind of fusion with New Orleans jazz that was going to be happening. And that's what was happening when we got there (just slightly late).

The Del McCoury Band involves DM playing guitar and singing lead vocals, along with his two sons, Ronnie and Rob, who play mandolin and banjo respectively, a fiddler and a bassist. It turns out that Del was guitarist in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, who (does anyone dispute this?) created the 'bluegrass' genre. So...one of the originators.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band are a New Orleans institute, active for several decades, with an evolving lineup. The current band includes Charlie Gabriel on clarinet, who said a few words about his happy memories of a residency at the Spa Lounge in Appleton back in the 50's, jamming with musicians over at Lawrence College, etc.. He even remembered the street names, which went down well with the locals!

The show involved a continually morphing body of musicians on stage: At times both bands (totally 14 players) were fully present, other times just the bluegrass players, just the jazzers, or some combination of both. There were only a couple of moments where it felt a little bit forced to me — other than that, a hugely successful experiment in intertwining two pinnacles of American music. The bluegrass band (superb musicianship, as you'd expect) reminded me of Irish session music at its best, but with a kind of groove or swing you'd probably never hear in Eire. When they were jamming with Preservation Hall, it became evident that this extra element in 'Americanised celtic folk' (if you can call it that) is the influence of the African diaspora...an inescapable groove that affects everything it touches, and which works as a bridge between the very "white" bluegrass style and the traditionally "black" New Orleans jazz sound.

Del M said a few words about the influence of jazz records on the early bluegrass players, and they played a couple of pieces to demonstrate this connection. Dixieland was also a major factor in all of this (although Dixieland, like the Grateful Dead, tends to involve everyone soloing at the same time, whereas bluegrass is very much a one-solo-at-a-time kind of thing). One of the Preservationists urged us all to our feet for the last number, the standard "I'll Fly Away" (Sarah whispered to me that this was played at our dear friend Chad Kelly's recent funeral — RIP Chad) — it was a great relief to be finally out of our seats, as this was not sitting-down music!

The encore, naturally was "When the Saints Go Marching In", something that both genres are entirely at home with. However, the arrangement was so intricately ornamented, that like a piece of New York subway graffiti that's so stylised you can no longer read what it says, it took a minute or two for the crowd to recognise what it was hearing. And then everyone was on their feet. The horn section processed off stage, along an aisle, through the lobby, back down an aisle and onto stage, attracting a string of dancing audience members along the way (including my friends... I hesitated at the last minute and missed my chance, but had the pleasure of watching Jimmer twirling Stef around on stage as the concert came to its naturally joyous conclusion, looking like he'd walked straight out of The Freak Brothers.

Afterwards, we ended up at a bar called Camelot (I think) where a couple of Appleton friends of my friends were playing a bluegrass set with their crew. I kept drifting in and out of sleep, but my mind kept superimposing a New Orleans jazz pulse over the top of their tunes, improvising intertwining horn lines, etc. Sarah had joined their circle, but as no one thought to bring instruments, she was happily making do to 'play' the knitting needles, knitting socks (I think).


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