Two weeks ago I attended the Down From the Mountain concert and I’m still trying to figure out why I, and the rest of the soldout house, found this old-timey music so satisfying, even thrilling.
Five years ago, I suspect this kind of music would have drawn a sparse crowd of gaunt, haunted-looking folk music freaks. This year, Portland, like most of the 25-city tour, sold out well in advance. According to who you talk to, Portland sold out the first day or in three days.
Down From The Mountain: It started with the movie by the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, and their movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The film was set in Mississippi in 1937. The producers decided they wanted a soundtrack of music representative of the era. That would include mountain music, delta blues, gospel and chain gang chanting. All these were fated to evolve into bluegrass, commercial country music and rock and roll. So they assembled a soundtrack that reflected those early influences.
The soundtrack became a blockbuster. More than four million copies of the CD have been sold. And that proved only the beginning.
On May 28, 2000, most of the artists on the soundtrack gathered at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to recreate the music in the concert. The response turned out so overwhelming that most of the artists formed a touring concert, Down From the Mountain.
From there, sellout after sellout has greeted the performers.
I didn’t see many teenagers at the Portland concert; this wasn’t MTV choreography. Neither were the very old in evidence. It was a 20 and up crowd. Even entering the Arlene Schnitzer auditorium, the atmosphere appeared different. A temporary sign at the bar informed imbibers they could take their drinks into the auditorium.
There were never any curtains to open. A spread of rugs occupied center stage while a lectern stood to one side. The performers walked on and off the stage, packing their instruments. They had no wired tools. They played, instead, to an intricate setup of stand microphones.
If I was expecting a serious, subdued crowd, I soon learned better. The cheers and hollers came loudly and frequently. I heard some amazing performances by the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, the Whites, Norman Blake and many others. I saw the dobro played astoundingly slung around the neck by Jerry Douglas. I never heard a vocal trio cuter or more soulful on white gospel than the Peasall sisters. The youngest, Leah, was an incredible six when the soundtrack was recorded, the oldest, Sarah, 12. Gillian Welch, regrettably, did not make the tour but Patty Loveless filled in admirably. She also brought with her a fiddle player who sawed away more than adequately.
At the end of two and a half hours of nonstop music, the audience stood and intoned a heartfelt “Amazing Grace,” with lyrics sung out ahead of time, line by line, by Ralph Stanley. It didn’t quite bring tears to the eyes but it definitely created an emotional climax.
I believe people are tired of a fog machine world. I believe they long for bedrock, for solid underpinning. This roots music resonates somehow in our deepest souls. It reminds us we have an enduring past as a society. Even despite such tragedies as Sept. 11, we prevail. We yearn to stand on firm ground, not shifting sands.
This was solid, weatherbeaten music. If something from the past remained vital this long, why can’t things remain that vibrant in the future? Why can’t we expect to remain dynamic with them? It is a comforting thought.
There are signs of this influence in other parts of our culture. We hear about the trend toward “cocooning.” People are showing a desire to settle back into stable family environments. We hear about the popularity of “comfort food,” implying many people want food that makes them feel comfortable rather than revved up.
We can’t expect everybody to experience this drive toward a more stable existence. Teenagers, with their raging hormones, must have concerts that erupt with pyrotechnics, hydraulic lifts, smoke machines and onstage hysteria. Let them. They’ll get tired of it as maturity creeps in.
Meantime, the sound of really fast mandolin picking will get my juices flowing fast enough. Judging by the Mountain concert crowd, I’ve got plenty of company.