It's been written before but I'll write it again: There are only two American musical traditions worth talking about:
1) The African-American tradition, historically centered in the Mississippi River Delta;
2) and the Scots-Irish tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
That's it. Everything else that's come out of this country that's worth listening to - jazz, R&B, gospel, rock ‘n' roll, bluegrass, country - has its roots in one or the other, or both, of these.
(The undeniable fact that both of them are Southern traditions is yet another reason for you non-Southerners to be happy we allow y'all to stick around here. You're welcome.)
Popular portrayals and conventional wisdom insist that we should consider those two traditions as somehow in opposition to each other. But in another of those adventurous double bills for which SMF Director Rob Gibson is becoming famous, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans and Del McCoury's bluegrass ensemble joined forces at the Trustees Friday night for one of the biggest barn-burners in recent SMF history, one which defied lazy explanation.
While the alliance of the two groups actually happened well before this evening -- with their American Legacies recorded collaboration and a Letterman appearance -- the overwhelmingly rapturous reception of the show was by no means a given considering the generally conservative nature of many typical SMF audience members.
It's true that many SMF audiences tend to skew a bit older, but it's just as true that I can't recall another crowd at the Trustees Theatre -- even for rock shows -- demand an encore in as spirited and vociferous fashion as the crowd did this night.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The takeaway from this show is twofold: A) the Preservation Hall Jazz Band remain a bunch of smiling, genteel killers who can play with anyone, anywhere, and B) it is a very pleasant surprise just how well these two fine ensembles melded America's two seminal musical traditions.
Indeed, one woman in the audience said to me right after the show, as people were still clapping: "I didn't think this would work. But boy was I wrong. Really really wrong."
Never have so many people been so glad to be wrong! While many of us went into the Trustees expecting to see a fairly contrived event involving both bands taking turns, the reality was different, and inspired. For the most part during this intermission-free show, both ensembles maintained a varying sort of overlap, with members of each coming over to join the other.
Occasionally the two groups would literally take turns playing -- as with a twinned rendition of one of their recorded collaborations, "Banjo Frisco" -- but largely this show really did have the air of a more informal jam and lick-trading session, whether it be Preservation vocalist/clarinetist Charlie Gabriel sauntering over to join the elder McCoury, once one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, at the mic (a couple of Del's sons are also with him onstage), or my new hero, Preservation's trumpeter nonpareil Mark Braud coming over for an extended and humorous mute solo.
I will say that the musical crosstalk, for mostly practical reasons, seemed to involve Preservation Hall members joining in with the McCoury band, rather than the other way around. I chalk this up not only to the huge advantage in volume that the horn players enjoyed over the string band, but to the more tonally fungible and rich nature of the jazz idiom itself -- which Braud at one point described as "puttin' a little gumbo juice on it."
And while bluegrass music was named for the eponymous cover crop of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, it's also true that bluegrass contains its own share of the "blue notes" that distinguish the African-American musical tradition, whether in blues or jazz. It was nice to see in person, in real time, how clearly those blue notes spoke to each other, over the miles and over the alleged cultural barriers. This cross-pollination was especially well-displayed in the grand finale of the gospel classic "I'll Fly Away," with some awesome vocals by regular Preservation Hall saxman Clint Maegden.
In any event, as both bands came out for an extended rousing encore including -- of course -- "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," all anyone could hear was the sound of brass ringing, the sound of their own clapping and yelling, and the sound of America itself.