in performance: the travelin’ mccourys/town mountain

ronnie mccoury and alan bartram of the travelin' mccourys. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

ronnie mccoury and alan bartram of the travelin’ mccourys. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Downtown – that’s where it’s happening,” remarked Ronnie McCoury as a different Bluegrass environment for bluegrass music settled in last night for the Breeders’ Cup Festival.

Instead of the usual summer string band setting of rural concert landscapes and rampant humidity, last night’s double-header featuring The Travelin’ McCourys and Town Mountain brought sterling bluegrass to the Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza smack in the middle of downtown. Gone also was a 36 hour soaking that forced Tuesday night’s Breeders’ Cup Festival set by The Suffers indoors. In its place was a brilliant fall evening.

Not that the McCourys didn’t temp fate a little. A realigned version of the heralded Del McCoury Band with the progressively minded guitarist Cody Kilby taking father Del’s place and sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury (on mandolin and banjo, respectively) upholding the family name, the ensemble opened with Walk Out in the Rain. Luckily, this Bob Dylan rarity popularized by Eric Clapton in the late ‘70s wasn’t a case of art imitating climate. But it did put The Travelin’ McCourys’ understated but virtuosic playing, along with crisp three part harmonies delivered by Ronnie, bassist Alan Bartram and Ashland-born fiddler Jason Carter on proud display.

As is the case when they play with patriarch Del, the McCourys are bluegrass Rembrandts. Last night, the musicianship was confidently exact, colorful and daring with a gorgeous tone established by each of the five players. But where the Del McCoury Band favors bluegrass tradition, The Travelin’ McCourys open the sound up. Last night’s performance sported tunes penned or popularized by Bill Monroe, Jerry Garcia (in and out of the Grateful Dead), Waylon Jennings, John Hartford and a pair of fine originals co-written by Bartram (including the aptly titled road anthem encore tune, Travelin’).

Particularly intriguing was a David Grisman-derived jam that shifted the focus to jazz phrasing with a Bartram bass line that would have sounded right at home on an early ‘70s Santana record, and a two-song Hartford medley (Natural to Be Gone and Back in the Goodle Days) that nicely recalled the composer’s animated yet restlessly rustic musical spirit.

adam chaffins and robert greer of town mountain.

adam chaffins and robert greer of town mountain.

The preceding set by Town Mountain operated from another stylistic base altogether. The bulk of the fine 75 minute performance drew on tradition. But instead of the usual bluegrass displays of warp speed solos, the band’s distinction was rooted in ensemble rhythm with echoes of early rock ‘n’ roll, swing and, of course, Appalachian inspiration.

As a result, new tunes like Ruination Line sounded like a speakeasy-era blast of string band propulsion underscored by the urgency of Robert Greer’s singing and the band’s steadfast rhythmic grind.

In similar fashion, the mid ‘80s Bruce Springsteen hit I’m on Fire, which has been part of Town Mountain’s repertoire for years, truly sounded like “a freight train rolling through the middle of my head” with the band supplying locomotive-like rhythm and fiddler Bobby Britt adding a low, wistful solo that served the proverbial train whistle roaring into the night.

What a glorious sound to hear ringing through the streets of downtown Lexington on a late October evening.

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