Monday, January 28, 2002

Acoustic Skaggs electrifies Taft crowd




By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bluegrass has been a rare recent success story in the slumping music business. Friday, two of the best bluegrass bands of all time showed why, teaming up to fill the Taft Theatre for an evening of powerful, passionate virtuosity.

        Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder and the Del McCoury Band mesmerized a near-capacity crowd of 1,770 for more than 2 1/2 hours of piercingly soulful singing and intensely precise musicianship.

        The McCoury band was up first. It's a family group in which guitar-playing father Del is backed by sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, respectively (Del's wife Jean could be found selling CDs in the lobby). Kentucky-born, master fiddler Jason Carter and rock-solid bassist Mike Bub fill out the quintet, with all members sharing vocals.

        Unfortunately, the McCoury band's old-fashioned minimalist approach to sound reinforcement — the entire band plays and sings through just two microphones — was unequal to the task of covering the Taft. Much of their fine, 65-minute performance was lost to bass feedback and other sound problems.

        Still, they made the best of it, Mr. Carter's warp-speed “Lee Highway Blues” and Ronnie's mandolin showpiece “Goldbrickin' ” earning enthusiastic ovations. And though he complained of not being in good voice, Mr. McCoury, a former member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, kept the patriarch's “high, lonesome sound” alive in such contemporary songs as “Recovering Pharisee.”

        Ronnie sang his own tribute to the bluegrass founder in a fine version of Mr. Monroe's “Body and Soul.”

        Mr. Skaggs repeatedly paid homage to Mr. Monroe, leading his seven-man Kentucky Thunder through such Monroe classics as the twin-fiddled “Wheel Hoss” and the haunting “Walls of Time.”

        Despite his '80s success in mainstream Nashville, Mr. Skaggs has played bluegrass since he was 5 years old. His combination of stunning instrumental skill, religious adherence to the traditional sound and (not the least of it) being able to afford the best touring band in bluegrass, brought to the stage some of the most thrilling music heard anywhere.

        His 90-minute show touched on commercial country in his own “Too Far Down to Fall” and tenor singer Paul Brewster's cover of Don Williams' “Till the Rivers All Run Dry”

        But it was when they injected rock 'n' roll energy to the Monroe mandolin classic, “Get Up John,” that Kentucky Thunder really showed what they could do.

        In his final encore of the night, Mr. Skaggs led the band with his mandolin set in the unique tuning Mr. Monroe developed in the '50s. The band dropped out as Mr. Skaggs percussively played alone in center stage. When the other musicians charged in for the final chorus, the Taft crowd virtually levitated with excitement. Music doesn't have to be electric to be electrifying, as Mr. Skaggs and company decisively proved Friday.

       



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