Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom December 15th, 2018
By Summers Baker
On December 15th, the Travelin’ McCourys made their second appearance at one of Denver’s premier live music venues, Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom—almost exactly one year after their first appearance there. They were joined this time around by a strong delegation of Colorado bluegrass musicians comprising the two bands Pick & Howl and Scott Slay & the Rail. Both opening bands brought their own piece of Colorado bluegrass to the room.
Pick & Howl brought the high energy we’ve all come to expect from the Colorado jamgrass scene. The highlight of their set was an original tune called “Roses by Her Bed,” a rock anthem stitched together with a catchy melodic hook played by the Dobro.
Scott Slay & the Rail brought the more traditional side of the genre to the crowd, though they made sure to bust out one of the most iconic newgrass tunes, “Same Old River,” which had the crowd singing along. As with any show at Cervantes, the energy was high.
When the Travelin’ McCourys walked on stage, they were poised and confident. Ronnie McCoury looked around the crowd with his relaxed eyes like a head chef at the best restaurant in town. His younger brother, Rob McCoury, tuned his banjo on stage, smiling. The crowd filled their beers and partook in their various pre-show rituals, and then the McCourys launched into their first tune, sung by their fiddle player, Jason Carter.
I always laugh when I hear the McCourys live, because it is just hard to believe that each of those musicians is THAT good. Solo after solo, song after song, they just kept ramping up the energy. Their guitarist, Cody Kilby, flatpicked a solo in the first song, and I nearly had to pick my jaw up off of the floor. The same went for every musician up there. For that hour and a half, the five best bluegrass musicians currently in Colorado were all on stage together at Cervantes. I found myself laughing at some point in every song.
And then, just in case we forgot, Ronnie reminded us as he introduced his fellow musicians that almost every band member was IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) royalty. Every Travelin’ McCoury but Kilby has been awarded Instrumentalist of The Year in his instrument category. Ronnie himself has been awarded mandolinist of the year eight times by IBMA.
Ronnie made the rounds, listing off each member’s pedigree with that same whimsical chuckle we’ve come to know from his father, Del. After each introduction, the introduced musician showed the crowd what Ronnie meant when he said, “They are one of the best in the business.”
He introduced their bass player, Alan Bartram, who led a tune off of their latest record called “Hardest Heart.” Alan commanded the slow-tempo song with power and clarity, and his voice was reminiscent of that high-lonesome sound brought to fruition by the first generation of bluegrass musicians. Alan was my favorite musician to watch up there.
The musical highlight of the night for me was when, right after a couple of raging traditional tunes, the band dropped into a moody rendition of Bruce Hornsby’s “White Wheeled Limousine,” sung by the fiddle player, Jason Carter. The song was a stark departure from the more traditional sounds that I have come to know from the Travelin’ McCourys. The song incorporated twisted, jazz-like melodies and clearly orchestrated material stacked up against emotional, open-ended jams.
The McCourys have developed a reputation as being among of the bastions of the traditional bluegrass style in the 21st century. Their albums are grounded in the traditional sounds, and they pay close attention to how that sound is articulated to their listeners. The solos they take are all nods of respect to the great musicians of the mid 20th century. In their music you can hear Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker, Tony Rice and a whole host of other musicians that are responsible for the music that we love today.
I was initially surprised to hear that a traditional bluegrass band was bringing their music to Cervantes, which has a reputation for throwing shows that are anything but quiet. Why weren’t The Travelin’ McCourys playing all over Colorado to seated, quiet crowds? Why was I watching Rob McCoury rip through a Scruggs tune through a haze of smoke?
The answer, for me, came at a moment in the show when Rob was rounding the corner on his fourth time through a solo. The crowd was dancing and yelling, and as he rounded that corner and drove the energy up another notch, I saw a few people in front of me stop dancing. They just stared in awe at the sonic madness coming from that banjo.
Yes, The Traveling McCourys are a traditional bluegrass band, but they have found a home in other arenas. When it comes down to it, playing to a crowd of party people is just downright fun, and I could see it on each of their faces throughout the night as we all rode that beautiful wave together.