This unexpected pairing of bluegrass royalty and one man band loop master looks from the outside to be an awkward marriage of convenience, with the McCourys ambling in for Williams' latest whim of making a bluegrass record. Surprisingly, this combination works well. Really well.
Out front there is Williams being Williams, composing offhanded lyrical adventures with lines like "My imagination is on vacation," "My mind is never closed, it's always open" and "How sweet you are in your long black American car." He's probably the first person to use the word "ninja" in a bluegrass song. Even with Williams' offhanded humor, musically the show was a nice mix of traditional and modern bluegrass.
If the name seems familiar, these McCourys are the offspring of bluegrass legend Del McCoury; blue (grass) bloods through and through. Given Williams' history as a solo artist relying on loops and synthesizers to create his songs, the running thought was that he'd be outmatched on the stage by the instrumental prowess of his fellow musicians. So it was nice to see this other side of Williams, the deft guitarist and picker able to keep pace with Ronnie McCoury's blazing mandolin or ride the bumps alongside the rolling claw hammer of banjo player Rob McCoury.
The show began with a fast paced instrumental, each musician dusting off the strings with a brief solo. Ronnie McCoury handled vocals and leads on "Graveyard Shift," and upright bassist Alan Bartman lead the band through an original about hitting the town with his wife, but most of the vocal duties fell to Williams. Naturally, he kept it quirky, but the mix of fast, off-speed and slower mostly bluegrass numbers made for a balanced set and also allowed each musician, including fiddler Jason Carter, room to get in a few licks--most of which were nothing short of amazing. The McCourys, for their part, blending easily with Williams. Twenty-plus years of touring and confidence allows such unions to seamlessly transpire and make it look and sound like an everyday happening.
The band took a brief turn for the islands with the calypso-flavored "Man Smart, Women Smarter" and Williams' "Freeker by the Speaker" kept some of its original rock intonation too, but otherwise this was a two-hour fun and free-feeling bluegrass affair that also included a beautiful rendition of Old & In The Way's "The Hobo Song."
"Let's make the world dance," Williams sang at one point. This world, the one poised on a patch of sod covering an otherwise normal parking lot in North Scottsdale, did just that--until there was just no music left.
Last Night: The Travelin' McCourys featuring Keller Williams
Personal bias: Could Keller Williams' unique solo style fit within a band setting? I was anxious to find out.
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The crowd: Lots of kids; a wide range of adults young and old
Random notebook dump: This is a nice way to ease out of a long weekend of music.
Overheard: On the edge of the crowd: Her, "Those kids over there are going crazy." Him, "Bluegrass music is destroying our youth."