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Ralph Stanley spreads it out

First Baptist Church, Cambridge, Mass., October 29, 2006

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Age doesn't seem to be catching up with Dr. Ralph Stanley all that much. Yes, he was slowed down last year by heart surgery, and he may look a bit frail, but that certainly doesn't seem to be the case in concert.

At a time when most folks his age - - would be quite content to hang with the children and grandchildren...well actually Stanley does that every night in concert because his son, Ralph II, and grandson, Nathan, 14, are part of the troupe putting out bluegrass and Appalachian music.

But a Ralph Stanley show is not just a family affair as evidenced during the 90 minutes he spent on stage in an appropriate Sunday setting for him, a church because he has one strong band of Clinch Mountain Boys.

Stanley's voice remains strong and firm, particularly on the haunting "O Death" from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which led to a resurgence of Stanley's career.

That may have been why there were a decent number of folks under 25 at the show, which appeared sold out.

Stanley also turned in a good version of "Cotton Eyed Joe," though he warned the crowd he may not remember the words. He didn't recall all of them, but made his way through and joked about it afterwards.

Stanley spends most of his time singing and introducing songs by others in his troupe. He only played clawhammer banjo on one song, though he sure made the instrument come alive and did a fine job, but perhaps age may be catching up with his playing abilities.

As for the band, this group of Clinch Mountain Boys is real strong. Dewey Brown on fiddle was a particular standout on many songs, giving just the right touch. Steve Sparkman on banjo also proved added tasty licks throughout.

Long-time bassist Jack Cooke, who recalls Stanley vocally - maybe he ought to after 37 years with him, took a few lead turns, including "Long Black Veil" (interestingly enough, one of the song's co-writers had died the previous day) and is the big joker of the group.

Another long-time member, James Alan Shelton plays just fine on acoustic guitar. Ralph II, who has a career going in his own right, had more of a country/bluegrass flair vocally and was up to snuff.

Youthful though he may be, Nathan demonstrated ample ability on mandolin. Where he fell short as vocally, but that could come with time. However, he should not be singing songs of lost love at his age. That makes no sense.

In effect, a show by Ralph Stanley these days is a revue, but with such a strong line-up, it's quite alright to spread out the good playing and singing.

Jake and Taylor Armerding, a son-and-father duo, opened with a solid 30-minute set that was more singer/songerwriter than bluegrass. Jake took care of most of the vocals with Taylor suppylying fine backing vocals and strong mandolin playing. The younger Armerding, who has an album out on Compass Records, also showed a likable stage presence.