Weekend of Music

Quite a weekend of music. Ralph Stanley played Prospect Park on Friday night, an amazing show. Perhaps simply because I am not such a festival hound that I’ve seen him a dozen times, I was blown away by the show and glad I didn’t listen to the (surprisingly many) people who said, “Eh, he hardly plays anymore and his voice is shot, so I’m not going to bother.” Both of those things are true, and neither of them matter one damned bit to the music.

Yes, his voice is cracked and aged, and he can’t hit the high notes like he once did. But how many of us could stand alone on a stage and sing “O Death” a capella and hold thousands of people spellbound? Frankly that song probably has more effect sung the way he sings it now than the way he could have years ago, and what he’s lost in his vocal abilities he’s gained in experience and power.

And yeah, he only brought the banjo out for two songs, and for the first twenty minutes of the show, simply played emcee, introducing each number and just standing there as the band played. But what a band! Some of them have played with Stanley for decades, he’s got two generations of his own family playing with him, and all of them were brilliant players who knew when to take charge and when to step back and let the song go.

And they all stepped back (literally) after every song to leave him alone at the mic; it was clear who was in charge. His grandson then introduced “the star of the show,” listing a few of his grandfather’s many honors until the patriarch made a move-it-along motion, and concluding “…and the thing I love most about him is his love for Jesus Christ, here’s my grandpappy Ralph Stanley.” And there was no further doubt about why we were there.

Ralph with his son, Ralph Stanley II.

Nathan Stanley, 14, is Ralph’s grandson. Note the large diamond ring on his left hand.

Dewey Brown closed the main show with a blazing "Orange Blossom Special."

James Shelton, right, is Stanley’s bandleader and road manager, and a great flatpicker as well.

Bass player Jack Cooke (right) has played with the Clinch Mountain Boys for 38 years. His voice was so powerful the sound folks had to scramble to turn his mic down.

Ralph with Steve Sparkman, banjo.

Three Generations of Stanleys: Ralph with Ralph II and Nathan.

Brooklyn bluegrass stalwarts James Reams and the Barnstormers opened the show.

I couldn’t see Richard Thompson’s appearance at Celebrate Brooklyn because I was at the Lyle Lovett show (oh, the sacrifices I have to make) so instead we drove up to see him in Peekskill, NY, at the Paramount Center. It’s a wonderful venue, a renovated movie palace that has great music events and also still shows films. RT wasn’t in rare form, he was just typically brilliant, and it’s good to hear him slash away on the Strat once in a while. I do wish, though, that he’d expand the band back to what it used to be, with John Kirkpatrick on accordion and Clive Gregson and Christine Collister and even his son Teddy, whose solo stuff is kinda dull but who sounds fantastic singing with his father.

Nonetheless, Pete Zorn was truly impressive on the semicircle of instruments that surrounded him like a troupe of hungry children (baritone, alto and soprano sax, mandolin and guitar), and the newer members of the band, Taras Podaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums, have re-enlivened some of the old standards.

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