In theory, it was a great idea: Get four veteran bluegrass bandleaders together onstage and watch them wail.
In action, the ad-hoc band never lived up to the sum of its parts. Individually, Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Hicks are legends. At Thursday’s show in the Trustees Theater – just the third time they’ve all played together - they never quite jelled as a unit.
With all due respect, each is a great player. McCoury’s bass-string runs on the acoustic guitar were flawless as always, and no one sings those high lonesome bends like him. Fiddler Hicks is one of the very best in bluegrass, and Crowe’s banjo breakdowns were solid - if not particularly inspired.
The 81-year-old Osborne, one-half of the immortal Osborne Brothers, still has one of the highest voices in the genre, although some of the highest notes now elude him. His mandolin work, unfortunately, was rarely more than pedestrian.
Is it age? Probably not. Bill Monroe was 84 when he passed on, still picking with fire in his fingers.
But Monroe was wise enough to keep hiring young virtuoso players to fill out the ranks in his Bluegrass Boys. McCoury and Crowe, too, have long been known for hiring young hotshots to take the lightning solos. Even Osborne does it.
That, I think, was the issue at Thursday’s performance (which also included Jerry McCoury, Del’s brother, on standup bass). With the exception of Hicks, whose fiddle soared on top of the ensemble work and absolutely shone on his solos, none of the guys are great soloists. Nobody played as if he had something to prove.
With this many miles on them, perhaps they don’t.
To be fair, the first half hour was all but ruined by the worst sound I have ever heard at a Savannah Music Festival show. It was painfully tinny and totally without bass, as if the p.a. speakers hadn’t been switched on, and all we were getting was the sound from the musicians’ dinky onstage monitors.
Let’s talk highlights: Hicks’ smoking fiddle on “Cherokee,” and his surprisingly warm baritone singing voice on Ray Price’s “Take Me As I Am or Let Me Go.” McCoury and his brother sang a fine duet on Monroe’s “The Old Cross Road,” and Del was in fine form on his own well-known crowd pleaser “Don’t Stop the Music.”
I’m not picking on Bobby Hicks, who is a true and undisputed bluegrass architect; hearing him take the lead vocal on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was spine-tingling, and he got the nearly sold-out audience moving with a spirited rendition of “Rocky Top,” a song he helped make famous.
All in all, however, it was a frustratingly light musical experience.
Personal to Del: Porter Wagoner called. He wants his hair back.