February 25, 2007

Music Review: Dr Ralph Stanley in Berkeley on his Eightieth Birthday

Last night, the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley hosted Dr Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys at St. John's Presbyterian Church. The opening act was Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, from round here, & they were great. Then, when the headliner & the eight men he plays with made their way to the stage, Laurie ran up & announced that it was 9pm here, so therefore midnight “Clinch Mountain Time”, Ralph Stanley's 80th birthday. In lieu of Mayor Bates, the mayor's senior aide read a proclamation, hilariously & formally worded, that because of his eminent career in the arts, & because he has played in Berkeley so many times for the past five decades, February 25th would therefore henceforth be Ralph Stanley Day in Berkeley. (I wish I could quote the proclamation here, but other bloggers have also had no luck finding it.) There was a cake, too.

The evening after that was fairly short, it seemed like he only sang three or four of the dozen songs. He let each member of the band do something from one of their solo projects, & introduced each one with an old-fashion Grand Ole Opry MC style, dumb jokes & all. His son & grandson tour with him. His grandson loves Jesus, & also bling, & sang a mediocre gospel tune in three-four about how Jesus is “more brighter” than the stars. Dr. Ralph sang “O Death” from O Brother Where Art Thou, for which he once won a Grammy. It sounded pretty much the same. The music was great, mostly, but there was a bizarre self-congratulatory tone to the whole evening, with Nathan Stanley reading out a long list of awards & honors his grandfather had won, & James Shelton spending fifteen minutes explaining in great detail everything you could buy in the back (including two of the instruments on stage). My favorite musician was Jack Cooke, the “bass fiddle” player, who's been with Stanley for thirty-seven years, & sings upper harmony. He sang a beautiful song with Laurie Lewis about how the cookie crumbles. I smiled at him as he walked up the aisle, & he put his hand on my shoulder as he passed.

You can hear them play "Angel Band", also from the O Brother soundtrack, on the Prairie Home Companion website, here.

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