Feeling bluegrass

Laurie Lewis and Ralph Stanley pick some winners at Laxson

KINGS OF THE MOUNTAIN<br> Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley stayed mostly in the background at the Feb. 23 performance, allowing the Boys shine. From left: Stanley, Ralph Stanley II, Nathan Stanley and longtime member Jack Cooke.

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley stayed mostly in the background at the Feb. 23 performance, allowing the Boys shine. From left: Stanley, Ralph Stanley II, Nathan Stanley and longtime member Jack Cooke.

Photo By Mark Lore

It would have been worth the price of admission just to hear “newgrass” queen Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands do their sweet thing. But Lewis was “merely” the opener to a bluegrass legend, the Ralph Stanley, at a packed Laxson Auditorium.

The Berkeley multi-instrumentalist/vocalist (Lewis played fiddle and sang during this performance) shone from the get-go, just as she has done on the other occasions this reviewer has seen her. Known both for her musical talent and for her down-home stage presence, Lewis led her supremely able band through a flawless set of material that could easily have stood on its own as one hell of a beautiful show.

As always, Lewis’ solo singing was spot-on in its familiar, lovely way. The three- and four-part harmonies between Lewis and her bandmates was equally striking in the tradition of the best bluegrass harmony vocals.

The band played the late bluegrass king Jimmy Martin’s “Before the Sun Goes Down,” which featured a fine, deliberately-picked solo from banjoist Craig Smith, a smooth bass solo from Todd Phillips and excellent three-part vocal harmonies. And their superb treatment of the Billy Joe Shaver song “Live Forever” (from Lewis’ 2006 release The Golden West) featured Scott Huffman in his wonderfully country voice, as did their delivery of “Bury Me in Bluegrass” and “A Hand to Hold,” from the same album.

After a brief intermission came Dr. Ralph Stanley—second only to the late Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe for bluegrass-legend status. Stanley, most widely known for his haunting rendition of “O Death” on 2000’s wildly popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, brought his Clinch Mountain Boys, who got the crowd warmed up.

The seven Clinch Mountain Boys—hailing from various places in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky—took over the stage in all their slick, impressive, color-coordinated glory (salmon-colored shirts, brown trousers and off-white cowboy hats). A few of Stanley’s family members also were involved: his son Ralph Stanley II on guitar and vocals, and his amazing 14-year-old grandson Nathan Stanley on mandolin and vocals.

The good doctor, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, hit the stage by the second song, said a few words, then stepped back for a while to allow his boys to continue basking in the limelight as, one by one, they took turns showing off their finely-honed bluegrass chops.

Fiddler Dewey Brown, lead guitarist James Shelton and banjo player Steve Sparkman each had chances to shine. Sparkman ripped it up on the Stanley Brothers’ classic “Clinch Mountain Backstep” (Ralph’s brother Carter passed away in 1966). Bassist Jack Cooke, who has played with Stanley for 36 years, sang a twangy, infectious version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

Guitarist Danny Davis stole the show more than once when he did his wacky, fast, tap-like dance, jiggling his ample body across the stage and sassily perching his foot on a chair at select moments.

Stanley, several songs into the set, stepped up to the microphone and delivered his take on “The Room at the Top of the Stairs,” in his unmistakable, high lonesome voice. Next, he sang a very poignant “O Death": “O Death / Won’t you spare me over till another year?”

Stanley took off his jacket at one point late on the show, pulled out his banjo and proceeded to show that he’s still got it, explaining beforehand that he’d played it in the band “for about 50 years, until Steve [Sparkman] came along.”

Brown whipped out an impressive “Orange Blossom Special” for the last song, before an encore of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with a little interlude of “Mountain Dew” ("I would not leave you wanting another song!” Stanley assured us), while Davis did his little dance again.