It isn’t everyday that a single project or album emerges as a bellwether for the public’s musical taste. The wildly successful O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack marks a return to American roots music. Prior to this tour, and with little commercial airplay, the album went quadruple platinum, selling over 4 million copies. The collection of old-time bluegrass, gospel, and country music has created a genuine resurgence of interest in this long forgotten genre. Producer T. Bone Burnett gathered all the artists for a promotional concert at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. The popularity of that show and a subsequent date at Carnegie Hall convinced him to take the show on the road. The tour gets it’s name from a concert film “Down From the Mountain” documenting the original Ryman performance.
The musical phenomenon swept into Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium January 26th for the second stop on a 17-city US tour. As the crowd of genteel southerners settled into the plush red velvet seats a father was overheard advising his son, “You gonna get an education tonight boy. And none of that Weasel in the car on the way home.” His wife spoke up, “It’s Wheezer dear.”
The show opened with host Bob Neuwirth dedicating the evening to the late John Hartford. Hartford, an eccentric who helped create the newgrass genre, had acted as host at the original Nashville concert. The show was presented as an old-time review, with Neuwirth introducing each act, who would then play one or two songs before stepping aside for the next group. It was an excellent format that proved very entertaining as artists would keep re-appearing with many different lineups. As host, Neuwirth stayed in the background and didn’t detract from the music, however his short intros were dull and full of lame jokes, a bit “too northern” as one person commented.
The Nashville Bluegrass Band kicked things off with “Poor Lazarus,” the acapella gospel song. This talented lineup of musicians served as the house band, accompanying many acts throughout the evening. Guitar legend Norman Blake followed with the comical “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” He was joined by his wife Nancy on mandolin for “You are my Sunshine.”
Bluegrass superstars Alison Krauss and Union Station took the stage to deafening applause. Alison displayed her brilliant fiddle playing on the “Kern County Breakdown.” Bluegrass artists are fans too. They understand why the audience came and what they want to hear. The lead guitarist for Union Station is none other than Dan Tyminski “The man who made George Clooney sound sooooo good...” as Alison introduced him. He immediately launched into the hit single “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” The signature song from the soundtrack, it won Country Music Award’s “Single of the Year” and is nominated for a Grammy. The audience exploded at the opening riff as Dan’s voice bounced off the back walls of the room. Alison Krauss had a bad cold and spoke some in a croaking voice, but didn’t do any singing. While this could have been a major disappointment, it wasn’t noticeable with such and all-star lineup and a fast-moving show.
Speaking of all-stars, Emmy Lou Harris was next to grace the stage. A country and folk favorite for over 20 years, Emmy Lou possesses amazing control over her voice. She can sing softly with great clarity, and suddenly crescendo into a loud booming wail so powerful your ears ring. She sang two numbers “The Other Side of Life" and "Red Dirt Girl,” from her most recent album. She was accompanied by the husband and wife team Julie and Buddy Miller and members of the Nashville Bluegrass band. Emmy Lou looked fantastic in one of her trademark flowing skirts.
Chris Thomas King was excellent as “Tommy Johnson,” a Robert Johnson-esq character depicted in the movie. One would think he was an actor by trade. In actuality he’s a talented blues musician with a shiny resonator guitar and that essential gift for writing dark and troubled songs. King ripped through his own “John Law Burned Down The Liquor Store,” a fantastic delta blues romp. He also sang “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” a slow mournful tune.
Joining Emmy Lou Harris and Julie Miller for the next act was rising country star Patty Loveless. Loveless is an authentic Kentucky coal-miner’s daughter and not shy about reminding you. She is also a popular country singer, having recording with Travis Tritt and others. The three female voices blended into a hypnotic spell during the lullaby.
The Peasall Sisters finished the first set with a high-pitched rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” These young sisters harmonize well together as most family acts do. They have grown a bit since the album was recorded and their voices sound (slightly) less childish. It would be tempting to dismiss them as a novelty act, but remember that Nickel Creek started out this way as well. If the sisters keep practicing they could be very good down the road.
A 20-minute intermission allowed everyone to stretch their legs and compare favorite songs with their neighbor. Two gentlemen were returning to their seat, “We’re gonna walk off that meal, aren’t we John.” John, plodding along behind him, said in a slow drawl, “Yep, it’s them sweet potato fries.”
Set two opened up with Jerry Douglas, the master of the dobro, playing a couple of solo numbers. He was fast as lightning, playing the most up-tempo music of the night. Alison Krauss and Union Station joined him for two fiddle tunes, keeping the instrumentals rolling. Allison’s voice should get better towards the latter half of the tour.
The Nashville Bluegrass band returned for “Gambling Barroom Blues” and “Sitting On Top of the World.” Mandolin player Mike Compton has made a name for himself with his old-time style of playing. His mandolin chops evoke a sound reminiscent of the early days of bluegrass. The band picked it up a bit with “In the Jailhouse Now,” a rollicking song detailing where one ends up after a night on the town. Chris Sharp let loose with the high yodeling vocals giving the song a unique sound.
The Whites were next with their version of “Keep on the Sunny Side.” They are a family outfit who’ve been together for years and appeared in "O Brother" singing from the back of a flatbed truck. This night they played from a stationary spot, thanking the crowd “...for coming to see real country music.” As to why they stick with old-time music, Sharon White said in her naturally thick southern accent “Do you think anyone who talks like this could sing pop!?”
With so many musicians, the lineup will change slightly in each city. One of those rotating in and out is Patty Loveless. Her brassy country voice has won her many fans. While she was not on the soundtrack, her appearance on tour is most likely due to her most recent album, Mountain Soul. The release sounds more like traditional country than the current pop country dominating the airwaves. She returned to sing two numbers "Pretty Little Miss" and "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" a depressing ballad about hopes and aspirations.
With the passing of Bill Monroe, Dr. Ralph Stanley is the elder statesman of bluegrass. His voice embodies the high lonesome sound. Accustomed to touring constantly, Stanley has recently slowed down a bit. This made his presence special, the keystone in the evening’s musical review. Starting with “O Death,” an acapella dirge, Stanley’s voice was strong. Patty Loveless joined him for “Girl from the Greenbriar Shore,” and “Pretty Polly.” Perhaps as a wink to the current fortunes of his music, Stanley performed the hit that he originally penned, “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
The evening ended with the entire ensemble onstage for Ralph Stanley’s “Angel Band,” a fitting end to a momentous show. Be sure to catch this tour as it rolls through, many of these artist wouldn’t get this kind of exposure otherwise. And anyone unfamiliar with the roots music resurgence will definitely be getting an education.
January 25, 2002 - Lexington, KY Rupp Arena
January 26, 2002 - Spartanburg, SC Spartanburg Mem. Aud.
January 27, 2002 - Atlanta, GA Atlanta Civic Ctr. Theatre
January 29, 2002 - New York, NY Radio City Music Hall
January 30, 2002 - Newark, NJ New Jersey Performing Arts Center
January 31, 2002 - Philadelphia, PA Academy Of Music
February 2, 2002 - Boston, MA Wang Center
February 4, 2002 - Washington, DC DAR Constitution Hall
February 5, 2002 - Washington, DC DAR Constitution Hall (Tickets Still Available)
February 6, 2002 - Toronto, ON Sears Theatre (Tickets Still Available)
February 8, 2002 - Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
February 9, 2002 - Minneapolis, MN State Theatre
February 11, 2002 - Denver, CO Paramount Theatre
February 13, 2002 - Portland, OR Arlene Schnitzer Hall
February 14, 2002 - Seattle, WA Paramount Theatre
February 17, 2002 - Universal City, CA Universal Amphitheatre (Tickets Still Available)
February 19, 2002 - Cupertino, CA Flint Center (Tickets Still Available)
February 20, 2002 - Berkeley, CA Berkeley Comm. Theatre (Tickets Still Available)
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