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For McCoury, Grisman, music still matters

State Theater, Portland, Maine, November 20, 2015

Reviewed by Fred Smith

Other recent concert reviews
One condenser microphone, a music stand, a mandolin, rhythm guitar and more than 100 years of bluegrass experience: that's all David Grisman and Del McCoury need to put on a show.

It's quite a show, too. The artists' backstories are well known: McCoury was a logger in Lancaster County, Pa., who came to New York City to see Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in the early 1960's. A banjo player then, Monroe asked him to join the band. Soon McCoury was singing tenor lead with Monroe's band, eventually playing rhythm guitar. Grisman tells the story on stage of seeing McCoury's first gig with Monroe.

Grisman, for his part, played mandolin and came up in the mid-'60s Boston music scene and collaborated with Peter Rowan in a psychedelic rock band (Earth Opera), before getting with Jerry Garcia and Tony Rice in some early '70s creations, which endure to this day. Not to mention his central role in Old and In The Way, with Garcia, Rice, Rowan and Vassar Clements.

Grisman calls his mandolin style "Dawg Music," featuring chops, jazz influences and some tasty cross-picking fills. At 76, McCoury's voice is still rock-solid. He tours relentlessly with his sons (Ronnie and Rob) as well as Alan Bartram (bass) and Jason Carter (fiddle) in the Del McCoury Band.

These days, Grisman is less of a road warrior, playing with his Quintet on a few select dates each year. However, for the last couple of years, Grisman and McCoury have done a dozen or so two-man shows like this one.

The duo have a few set pieces, but much of the two-hour (with intermission) show featured songs in the standard bluegrass repertoire, which McCoury and Grisman pulled out as the mood suited them.

"Salt Creek" was as fresh as the day it was written. Grisman's turn on another old warhorse, "Tennessee Waltz," could not have smoother or sweeter. At one point, McCoury called an audible, and started in on Jimmy Martin's "Brakeman's Blues," which starts out "Portland, Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee."

McCoury and Grisman are pros in the best sense of the word. They could be forgiven for metaphorically posting their musical resumes and coasting through the evening. The music still matters to them, and the crowd embraced it and them.