As Music City, Nashville has always been a hive of musical cross-pollination. It was a gospel group, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, that earned us our first mention as a “musical city,” by Queen Victoria in 1847. Jazz? The Tennessee State University Collegians performed at Carnegie Hall. Soul? Rhythm and blues flourished on Jefferson Street in the mid-20th century, and some of the greatest R&B records recorded here bear sweet strands of country, whether in the playing, the singing or the songwriting.
In recent years, though, no Music City genre has launched more hybrid strains than bluegrass. Béla Fleck created the banjo concerto, while Yo-Yo Ma worked with local musicians to blend bluegrass with classical music in the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Most recently, bluegrass titan Del McCoury collaborated with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band to pair bluegrass with Dixieland jazz on the acclaimed American Legacies album. The fruit of that inspired cross-breeding brought audiences to their feet last night at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where two renowned live bands combined into a genre-shredding ensemble for the ages.
The total lineup included two tubas, a drum kit, trombone, trumpet, sax, clarinet, piano, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and upright bass. The program oscillated between Preservation Hall (known as Prez Hall) on the left of the stage, and Del McCoury and his band on the right. Besides the guitarist and fiddler Jason Carter, who wore colored undershirts, all sported white shirts and black ties underneath uniformly matching black suits.
The matching clothing was the only rigid aspect to the performance. Concert-hall formality dissolved as audiences clapped and whooped and tapped their feet. Regular symphony patrons sat next to country fans in Waylon Jennings getups, long-haired dudes in trucker hats, and slight blonde socialites. All tipped back beers and mixed drinks, thanks to the hall’s looser libations policy for special events. On stage, a metal bowler hat was clamped upside down to a stand, an homage to the street-side busking roots of jazz and bluegrass. The invitation to deposit tips only underscored the music's loose, spontaneous nature.
The program began with the song “The Band’s In Town,” which featured round-robin callouts and breakout solos. Clarinet and fiddle swapped playful virtuosic riffs in a duel that electrified the stage, setting the tone for the night. A mariachi and zydeco number called “Jambalaya” was next on the menu, followed by the Western swing number “One Has My Name.” Throughout these pieces and the songs that followed, the vocalists and instrumentalists adapted fluidly to whatever style was asked of them.
Most of the movement on stage came from the two marching-band wrap-around tubas. One of the tuba players bounced to and fro like a helium balloon tethered by his microphone cable. (And just barely at that: He flapped his free arm like he was trying to fly into the expansive ceiling.) The second player ambled behind the grand piano, exploring the back half of the stage as his cheeks puffed and contracted.
The wandering tuba player switched to drum kit for “Banjo Frisco,” introduced as a bluegrass song “injected with gumbo juice.” The original banjo hook received amused applause when the brass blared back the injected version. The clarinet player followed by taking lead vocal on “A Good Gal,” leaving Carter to take a jazz solo that strayed even beyond the bounds of Western swing.
The bluegrass half of the stage exited, leaving Prez Hall to deliver a lively New Orleans number in which all instruments took a simultaneous 8-bar solo. By this point, noise of any type in the concert hall was no longer taboo. Most audience members clapped on the backbeat, and those that didn’t were still embraced. The night's relaxed nature seemed infectious: A call for a solo in “That Meeting in the Sky” surprised the trombone player, who jumped to his feet and hit a perfect note in less than a second’s notice.
Next was the “Diabetics National Anthem,” “The Sugar Blues,” in which a muted horn teased the audience with meowing growls. Whoops from the audience egged on simple ascending scales on the mandolin. The song’s most memorable line — the cheeky, “Baby cut your toenails. They’re rippin’ the sheets” — got a huge laugh from the crowd.
The rest of the show careened from one surprise to the next. A tuba player rocked nothing but a hand-muted miniature crash cymbal. The drummer took a lengthy solo after the rest of the band retreated to the back of the stage, getting a standing ovation. The bluegrass side of the stage delivered “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry,” in which Del McCoury shouted “hockadoo!” A cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel Number 9” featured lyrics about the jail pickup of a French Quarter hustler. In a break before the next song, banjo player Rob McCoury stepped forward and announced, “This is a wonderful place to play bluegrass music.”
The elder McCoury fervently nodded in the background and pointed to the symphony’s remarkable organ pipes, as the banjo player's words sent a shiver through the room: “On March 28th, we lost a great architect of bluegrass. He’s why I play the banjo. ... This one’s for Earl Scruggs. Can’t think of anything more fitting than Earl's ‘Breakdown.’”
After the program was finished, the amassed musicians made an earnest attempt at a single-line stage bow in grandiose style. The time it took them to scramble to the front of the stage, line up and link hands left the air empty — the only silence in the night’s performance besides the intermission. An inability to bend at the hips in synchronized fashion charmed the crowd into yet another standing ovation.
As an encore, the bands emerged to perform “I’ll Fly Away” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” The last song brought the audience to their feet, with a good dozen or so white handkerchiefs waving and even a lace jazz parasol bouncing up and down in the front few rows. Several people in Saints jerseys waved to the musicians on stage. This show was anything but for the birds.