Review of concert from 2001-06-13: Carnegie Hall, NYC; MC of 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' - as Presenter
Yahoo, 2001-06-15
- David Sprague


''O Brother'' brings music of the hills to Carnegie Hall

O Brother Where Art Thou (Carnegie Hall, 2,804 seats, $95 top)

By David Sprague

NEW YORK (Variety) - Bluegrass and Carnegie Hall would seem to be a less than likely pairing. But then again, the music of the hill country didn't seem like the ideal match for a high-profile George Clooney vehicle either -- and the left-field success of the unabashedly rustic soundtrack to ``O Brother Where Art Thou,'' which was celebrated at this barn-burner of a show, has proven otherwise.

In his introductory speech, master of ceremonies Elvis Costello played up the incongruity of the program that was to follow, asking if anyone in attendance could have envisioned ``a top 20 album with Ralph Stanley singing a five-minute a capella song about death.''

Stanley, who gave an extraordinary, sepulchral reading of that very song (the doom-laden ``O Death'') at the tail end of the evening, was but one of the gloriously anomalous participants in a show that spent plenty of time considering life's darker aspects, with an abundant dose of old-time salvation to balance things out.

There were a few lighter moments: The Whites used their two-song interlude to demonstrate that pickin' and corn go together mighty nicely; and Tim Blake Nelson (who starred alongside George Clooney in the film) replicated his slapstick celluloid rendition of ``He's in the Jailhouse Now,'' complete with wide-eyed yodels and broad yokel pantomime.

But for most of the 21/2 hour performance, the stage was bathed in tones of deep blue, hues that seeped from Alison Krauss' soaring soprano and the earthy voice of Gillian Welch.

These third- (or is it fourth-?) generation torchbearers all performed admirably, showing both reverence and virtuosity, but the evening's most moving moments all came courtesy of more wizened performers.

That pattern was set early on by Georgia flat-picker Norman Blake, whose simple, effective reading of ``Big Rock Candy Mountain'' (complete with the booze-and-butts verses usually excised from kiddie-show versions) could not have been more charming. The same could be said for the Fairfield Four's take on ``Lonesome Valley,'' which rose skyward in rough chunks, as if carved from the red earth itself.

The program was rife with moving moments, including a video tribute to John Hartford (the singer/songwriter, so pivotal to the creation of the ``O Brother'' soundtrack, who died of cancer just a week ago) and the appearance of the Cox Family.

The Grammy-winning gospel/bluegrass group, ravaged when a car accident paralyzed sexagenarian leader Willard Cox last summer, turned in a commanding performance highlighted by a tear-jerking rendition of ``I am Weary, Let Me Rest.''

Then again, Willard Cox -- whose fiddle playing has seldom sounded sweeter -- Ralph Stanley and their peers are survivors, plain and simple. The same, as this lovingly received show proves, can be said about their music of choice.

Presented by the Coen brothers. Musicians: Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Cox Family, the Whites, Norman Blake, Chris Thomas King, Dan Tyminski, Tim Blake Nelson, the Peasall Sisters, Colin Linden, David Rawlings. Reviewed June 13, 2001.

Reuters/Variety REUTERS

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