Music duo Del and Dawg perform bluegrass classics

With the Flynn Theater filled to the last seat by eager bluegrass fans, David “Dawg” Grisman and Del McCoury took the stage Feb. 26 for a two-set duo performance.

The physical contrast between Grisman and McCoury was clear on stage. Grisman’s stocky stature places him roughly four inches below Del’s infamous flipped back white hair. Both musicians sported similar suits for this semiformal event, but Del looked far more natural in his attire, as if he were born in a cowboy hat and a five-piece suit — a true country gentleman.

Grisman, who looks like more of the Deadhead type, wore a suit that, in comparison to Del’s, fit much more loosely. Instead of a button-up and tie, a Bernie Sanders tee proudly peeked through his unbuttoned suit jacket and past his mandolin.

Both musicians positioned themselves next to each other center stage. A small rug was placed beneath them to dampen the sound of footsteps, as they were sharing only a single diaphragm microphone with their instruments unplugged, staying true to old-style acoustic amplification.

The show opened with the traditional bluegrass tune, “Rabbit in the Log,” where both Del and Grisman sang verses and harmonized on the chorus. When the song and cheering had finished, Grisman introduced Del and explained that they had met in 1963 at Del’s first performance with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Del was playing five-string banjo at the time. Grisman went on to say that they have been friends ever since. Del then introduced Grisman and told the audience that the duo was celebrating the 50-year anniversary of their first album together, “Early Dawg.”

Del is a 77-year-old music legend. He has played and sung with everyone from Bill Monroe to Steve Earle to Phish. In 2010, he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award and was elected into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2011.

Grisman is a mandolinist who specializes in gypsy jazz and bluegrass, and has created his own style of acoustic music dubbed Dawg-grass. Grisman’s music can be heard on many albums and radio stations, including the “Pizza Tapes” that were recorded with Jerry Garcia, and on NPR where his music is used on the radio show “Car Talk.”

Recently, Del has been playing with his sons in the Del McCoury Band, but has taken a break from that to tour with Grisman and promote their new album, “Del and Dawg.”

Perhaps reflecting his age, Del occasionally forgot the lyrics on stage, but because of excellent musicianship and an amazing stage presence, his mistakes were easily brushed over.

Grisman soloed between verses on nearly every song. Being a master of tone, he made full use of the single microphone. The mandolin was crisp, clear, and well balanced against the guitar and vocals. Del is about as solid as a rhythm guitarist can be, and he never missed an opportunity to throw in a little turnaround lick at the end of a phrase.

Grisman’s not-so-traditional jazz influences brought an interesting aspect to many of the traditional songs, including the Flatt and Scruggs tune “I Know What it Means to be Lonesome” and the traditional fiddle tunes “Salt Creek,” “Devils Creek,” and “Shnandahoa Breakdown” that were played in a medley back to back.

Grisman, sounding akin to Jerry Garcia, has never been known for his voice, whereas Del is a perfectly pitched high tenor and may have the most recognizable voice in bluegrass. It was interesting to hear Grisman sing on nearly every song during the two sets, but at times it was strange to hear Del harmonize over Grisman because of the huge difference between their voices. On certain songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow,” however, their voices meshed well.

Near the end of the second set, Del drew the crowd’s attention to Grisman’s Bernie 2016 shirt. Grisman’s support of the presidential candidate was met with massive cheers. It took a few moments for the crowd to settle down and Grisman took this opportunity to introduce the next song while simultaneously taking advantage of the politically charged crowd.

“We’re going to do a Donald Trump tune now. This tune is total idiocy, you cannot figure out what this tune means,” said Grisman.

“We heard he drew a crowd in this auditorium,” Del commented, referring to the Trump Rally held at the Flynn Theater nearly two months ago. The mention of the Republican candidate’s presence at the Flynn caused an onslaught on booing.

Grisman calmed the booing, and turned to Del to say, “Well, he can’t sing a tenor like you.”

Then, facing the crowd, Grisman explained the importance of this particular song: “Anyhow, this is kinda serious subject matter, so we hope you can all get the message of this song and what it’s trying to convey. It is a song for the whole family, so don’t get worried about it or anything. It’s for deep thinking folks.”

The duo then kicked off the 1947 novelty tune “I Am My Own Grandpa,” which tells the story of a man who, through a weird yet legal string of marriages, becomes a stepfather to his own stepmother and, by dropping the “step” prefixes of these titles for the sake of the song, actually becomes his own grandfather. The crowd roared with laughter throughout the entirety of the piece.

A standing ovation brought Del and Grisman happily back onto the Flynn stage. They thanked the crowd and quickly started in on a popular old southern gospel piece, “Life’s a Railway to Heaven.”

Grisman took a few tasteful solos, staying close to the melody and restraining his jazz tendencies. Without waiting for the applause to die down, the duo started their final number, “Shalom Aleichem,” a powerful, traditional Jewish instrumental with a fast-paced bluegrass feel, led by Grisman.

Del and Grisman ended the show in the same manner that they had started it, by recognizing one another.
Grisman bowed and waved towards Del. “The great Del McCoury,” he said.

Del responded with a bow and a wave. “The greatest David Grisman,” he replied.