The Travelin’ MCourys: PURE BRILLIANCE
One of the best bluegrass quintets anywhere just blew through Tampa in the midst of their current tour. They sport guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass, with one foot (OK, five feet) squarely in the tradition and the other five ensconced in the now and the future. And they were absolutely brilliant.
You will be excused if you thought I meant Billy Strings and band, another equally magnificent bluegrass quintet, who recently rolled through Tampa and a three-night run in St. Augustine. There are a number of groups who fit this definition as well, including Mollie Tuttle & Golden Highway, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, and Leftover Salmon (and that is hardly an exhaustive list).
The quintet who lit up The Attic at Rock Brothers in Ybor City (Tampa) on Thursday, April 27, were The Travelin’ McCourys, who just launched their spring/summer tour April 25. They have more than a dozen festival appearances already on the calendar. The band serves as a subset of The Del McCoury Band, featuring Papa Del, regarded as one of the most important keepers of the bluegrass tradition. He began recording in 1968 and hasn’t quit since. The band performs in matching outfits and uses the single-microphone style to great effect.
Brothers Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob McCoury (banjo) have been playing with dad for ages, and they and the group’s bassist, Al Bartram, and fiddler Jason Carter decided to put together a separate group where they could step in and out of that tradition. Thus The Travelin’ McCourys were founded in 2009. They required a guitar player, of course. After a rotating cast of guests, they settled on the perfect complement to the band in 2015: Cody Kilby.
Which brings us to last Thursday. Three important points before we talk about the wonderful performance.
One: This was the best attended show and most enthusiastic crowd I have encountered at The Attic. From the moment they walked on and lit into “Cumberland Blues > Bluegrass Breakdown,” it was clear we were in for one superb night, and the crowd’s enthusiasm never waned.
Two: A sound engineer can make or break a band on stage. There is a reason that Key Chang is the band’s own man on the boards. This was the best sound I’ve encountered in that room — by a light year or two.
Three: Reaching out to management companies about press passes and, more importantly, photo access can be hit or miss. Without a doubt, MusicFestNews has never enjoyed better communication and access than with Chris Harris and Julian Garcia of Rainmaker Music Management. They manage The Travelin’ McCourys and other bands and events, and their offices are right in Tampa at Channelside. We look forward to a great relationship.
Yes, there was music, too!
The Travelin’ McCourys have always enjoyed playing the music of The Grateful Dead, which blossomed in 2016 with their Grateful Ball. That explains the stunning “Cumberland Blues” opener with Ronnie’s crystal-clear voice and Rob’s banjo ringing through. They would play “Brown Eyed Women” later in the set; “Candyman” had to be cut for time at the end, and “Scarlet Begonias” was on the AUDIBLE list.
From “Cumberland” it blasted immediately into “Bluegrass Breakdown” at breakneck speed, with solos from Ronnie, Rob, Ronnie again, Carter, and finally Kilby. If you needed an indication of the band’s mood, all you needed was a glance at Carter’s ear-to-ear grin, which he wore all night. These boys were having them a time!
Ronnie sang “Freedom Blues” with outstanding backing vocals from Carter and Bartram. Next he introduced Carter, who then offered up the first of four songs from his 2022 album Lowdown Hoedown, “King of the Hill.” Carter’s deep tenor is beautiful. Bartram got the next intro, and he in turn sang “Tight Tonight,” an Osborne Brothers tune. He too has a fine voice. Ronnie sang Hoyt Axton’s “Evangelina,” with some fine bass and guitar along the way. Ronnie told us that Kilby was guitar player of the year, and we enjoyed further evidence on “Welcome to China.”
The comedy portion of the show commenced with Bartram talking about a song he wrote with Jon Weisberger about a heartbreaking woman. “We probably made it sound worse than it was,” he quipped before stepping into “Hardest Heart” with lines such as “That gal of mine is lowdown mean.
Carter jumped on that theme. “We’re gonna keep it dark while we’re there,” setting up “Paper Angel” from his new album with Bartram on backing vocal. Coincidentally or not, a wild if short-lived storm was rolling through the area at the time; we were safely inside!
After all that “negativity,” “Brown Eyed Women” was a great addition, regardless of that song’s story line. To this point Mr. Banjo Rob McCoury had been dazzling, but we had not heard him say anything… yet. That would change as Ronnie mentioned the band’s single “I Like Beer,” a Tom T. Hall gem from 1975. Why beer? As Hall and Rob explain: “Whiskey’s too rough, Champagne costs too much, vodka puts my mouth in gear.” Sounds about right. At a critical point in the song, Josh McCoury, on tour assisting the band, delivered a stein of beer to Rob!
After “Passin’ Through,” they played the latest Travelin’ McCourys single “Whole of the Moon,” written by Mike Scott of The Waterboys and sung by Bartram. Following was a David Grier composition that appears on Carter’s new album, “Dust Bowl Dream.” There was banter about the song’s character being down to his last nickel.*
The quintet shook the room next with a rollicking “Banjo,” everybody taking a rapid-fire turn, then a deluxe romp through The Band’s ever-popular “The Shape I’m In.” Carter explained that he was able to corral the rest of the band to record on his new album. “They’re expensive, too!” As the laughter finally subsided, Carter noted, “That’s why I don’t have the nickel.” Ronnie, Kilby, and Rob all soloed on “Midnight Flyer.”
After “Let Her Go,” from the band’s self-titled 2018 album, somebody (possibly Bartram) commented on the proliferation of chickens running around Ybor City. “You’ve got to love a town full of chickens. Must make for some great breakfasts!”
They announced this would be their last song. We watched Ronnie put down his acoustic mandolin and plug in his electric, and we were off to the races with “Travelin’.” Bartram handled vocals, and everybody was firing on all cylinders. When Ronnie began wailing on his wah-wah pedal, well, DAMN! Everybody had great solos.
Done? Not by a long shot! Bartram handled vocals on “Dyin’ On the Vine,” which melted directly into a “Linda Lou” pickin’ fest!
You’ve got lots of great options for catching The Travelin’ McCourys all over the country! We’d like to suggest that you seize one or three!
[TM 04.27.23: Cumberland Blues > Bluegrass Breakdown, Freedom Blues, King of the Hill, Tight Tonight, Evangelina, Welcome to China, Hardest Treat, Paper Angel, Brown Eyed Women, I Like Beer, Passin’ Through, Whole of the Moon, Dust Bowl Dreams, Banjo, The Shape I’m In, Midnight Flyer, Let Her Go, Travelin’ Man; E: Dyin’ On the Vine, Linda Lou]
In the AUDIBLE pile: [Blue Letters, Kissimmee Kid, Southbound, Midnight Moonlight, Scarlet Begonias]
The Travelin’ McCourys
05/19 FreshGrass | Bentonville AR
05/25 DelFest | Cumberland MD
06/16 Weiser River Music Fest | Weiser ID
06/24 Big Ponderoo | Sisters OR
06/28 HopMonk Tavern Sebastopol | Sebastopol CA
06/29 Hopmonk Tavern | Novato CA **w/ Hot Buttered Rum, Nat Keefe
06/30 High Sierra Music Festival | Quincy CA
07/08 Frankfort Bluegrass Festival | Frankfort IL
07/12 The Tin PanRichmond VA
07/14 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival | Oak Hill NY **w/ The Del McCoury Band
07/28 Ossipee Valley Music Festival | Hiram ME
08/27 Pine Creek Lodge | Livingston MT
10/06 Georgia Mountain Fall Festival | Hiawassee GA
10/19 Haute Spot | Cedar Park TX
12/06 Strings & Sol | Puerto Morelos MEX
The Travelin’ McCourys
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