Review: Del McCoury Band, Preservation Hall Jazz Band mesh music, make magic at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg
If you ever needed a reminder that the distinctly American art forms of jazz and bluegrass still matter, just look at this year’s Grammys.
Americana acolytes Mumford & Sons won Album of the Year for their rollicking, foot-stomping Babel; while the Black Keys turned to Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for backup while performing Record of the Year nominee Lonely Boy. These are two of the biggest rock bands in the world right now. You’d have to imagine they know what they’re doing.
Odds are, both Marcus Mumford and Dan Auerbach would leap at the chance to jam with either the Del McCoury Band or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, two acts with more than a century of musical history between them. The bluegrass legend and the N’awlins preservationists teamed up in 2011 for American Legacies, an album of standards and originals that explored where their respective genres overlap — swing, jazz, Dixieland and the blues.
On Sunday, before 1,462 fans at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, both bands delivered a night of musical exploration and exhilaration, blending bluegrass, funk and good-time gospel. Dressed all in dark suits, filling the mostly unadorned stage, the bands played two sets, interspersing solo material with songs utilizing some, if not all, of the members from the other band. It was a clinic in American musicology, as culturally enlightening as it was toe-tapping.
McCoury and his boys — the quintet includes son Rob on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin — took the lead on the first set. McCoury’s high-pitched Appalachian croon was never in better form than on the funereal folk tune Get Down On Your Knees and Pray. There, and on Are You Teasing Me, the backing band delivered stunning vocal harmonies, particularly Ronnie McCoury and fiddle player Jason Carter.
Preservation Hall trumpeter Mark Braud shone throughout the evening, but never more than during a pair of songs with Del’s band — a cover of Eddie Dean’s One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart); and the slow, silly swing number Sugar Blues, which featured what Braud called “my mother’s favorite instrument,” a squawking, lifelike muted trumpet.
The jazzbos took the lead on the second set, especially trombonist Freddie Lonzo. He shone throughout the night, but never more than while blaring rip-roaring low tones during a twist on Jim Croce’s Charlie Green Play That Slide Trombone; and leading the band on Bourbon Street Parade, which earned a standing ovation from the crowd. The song started with Preservation Hall seated, with an almost businesslike demeanor, and ended with each member truly cutting loose. Fans made their way to the front row to dip tips in a small tin hat at the lip of the stage.
When the two bands played in full together, with all 12 members present, the music was at times magical. Braud and McCoury told the story of Banjo Frisco, a McCoury original that he hadn’t played in 30 years before they re-recorded it for American Legacies. McCoury’s band played a bit of the song as it originally sounded, and then both bands combined to “put a little gumbo” in it, McCoury said. The new version felt more expansive, more lively, even funky.
McCoury understandably deferred to Preservation Hall on the closer, a rowdy and danceable When The Saints Go Marching In. But no song captured the groups’ propensity for mashing genres like I’ll Fly Away, that old church-house staple. It opened as a soulful gospel tune that begged for a choir of hundreds — and then the jazzers dropped out, leaving Del’s boys to take over with their strings and stunning harmonies. Carter and Preservation Hall’s Charlie Gabriel traded licks on the fiddle and clarinet like they were always meant to be together.
The night reminded me of a recent AV Club article, “Remembering when country music wasn’t so white or conservative.” Historically, the genres of jazz, country and the blues have crossed boundaries more frequently than we often recognize. The fact that iconic acts like Del McCoury and Preservation Hall Jazz Band hear those similarities — and strive to help you hear them, too — is a lovely thing for our culure. (Now, if someone would just lock Chris Thile and Trombone Shorty in a studio to record their own version of American Legacies...)
Let the Keys and Mumfords have their Grammys. McCoury and Preservation Hall will just keep doing what they do best: Play American music.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*