DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN at the Sears Theatre, February 6. Tickets: $39.50-$69.50. Attendance: 4,500. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
it's hard to say what was moresurreal Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the sight of genteel picker Norman Blake on the arena's massive stage storming through You Are My Sunshine or the two well-pierced dudes in the bathroom after the show who couldn't believe how "heavy" bluegrass giant Del McCoury was.If there were any lingering questions about the complete crossover of the old-school country on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the three-hour Down From The Mountain banjo-palooza answered them. With Bob Neuwirth announcing from behind a lectern the 30 musicians, singers and yodellers who worked through songs about death, trains and drinking, the event offered a concise history of old-timey music in one night.
Just a handful of microphones stood on the stark stage -- no amplifiers or percussion -- so the focus was on the bare essentials. Whether you could hear anything or not depended on how close to the stage you were.
McCoury nailed the stripped-down vibe immediately, leading his airtight quintet through two chilling songs before Emmylou Harris strummed through an elliptical take on Daniel Lanois's Blackhawk. Then came Patti Loveless, Rhonda Vincent, Chris Thomas King and the Peasall Sisters in quick succession.
The rotation system was unsettling. Artists who could have hosted the entire night played two or three songs and then were rushed offstage for the next performers, killing any momentum the singer might have worked up. The only ones to really benefit from the peculiar arrangement were the members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, who turned up in a dozen different configurations but seemed to complement everybody.
Ralph Stanley needed no accompaniment. As the 75-year-old tore a cappella through the grim Oh Death, the entire arena went silent. Stanley could have sung for hours. Instead, he stayed for just 10 minutes, reprising O Brother's signature song, Man Of Constant Sorrow, before leading the full cast in a haunting version of Amazing Grace that left Loveless in tears.