Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys – Turf Club/House of Mercy Church (St. Paul, MN)
During a stirring rendition of “O Death”, Ralph Stanley’s weathered voice filled St. Paul’s cozy Turf Club and seemed to seep deep into the bodies of the 400 people who were lucky enough to snag a spot inside the small music venue. You couldn’t hear the ring of the cash register, no beer orders were being taken, and not even one sniffle or cough — that’s saying a lot in Minnesota — could be detected.
The only sound other than the 74-year-old bluegrass legend’s aging voice that could be heard was the slight buzz of an old air conditioner, but halfway through the moving, haunting a cappella number, someone silenced the noisy machine. The room became deathly quiet, as if Stanley’s soul had left his body and hovered above the audience, creating a sense of eeriness and strength. And this was supposed to be Saturday night?!
House of Mercy Church pastor Russell Rathbun and House of Mercy bandleader Chris Larson invited Stanley to participate in this “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” (named after Stanley’s 1992 album) event over a year ago. The idea behind the show was to gather local Twin Cities bands to play one song before a main set by Stanley and his band.
The catch? The Turf hosted the Saturday night portion, which was set up to include the wild stuff — songs about sinning, boozing, and having a grand time. To counteract the demons, there was the Sunday morning (actually Sunday afternoon) conclusion, with the House of Mercy Church taking the place of a bar, and songs of redemption and the Lord serving as the main attractions.
The double bill’s program declared, “Nobody’s all Sunday morning; nobody’s all Saturday night” — a universal feeling if ever there were one. Stanley and his band did a fine job living up to the task at hand with a nearly 90-minute set Saturday evening featuring his Clinch Mountain Boys, including lead guitarist James Alan Shelton, mandolin player John Rigsby, banjoist Steve Sparkman, fiddler James Price, and longtime bassist and harmony singer Jack Cooke (his son Ralph II was unable to make the trip).
Stanley’s lively show, which kicked off with “It Takes A Worried Man”, was a mix of oral history, music appreciation and sales pitch. His musical posse — dressed nicely in suits, ties and matching hats — had the audience of local scenesters, hipsters, and new and old country and bluegrass fans alike grinning from ear to ear. Predictably, the biggest hoots and hollers came for “O Death” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Stanley even took time to poke fun of the movie’s name. jokingly referring to it as, “O Brother, Where Yar At?” Things ended on an especially high note with an extended blast of “Orange Blossom Special”.
Over a dozen local musicians sandwiched Stanley’s performance at the Turf, beginning with one-song contributions from Jon Rodine (with Tony Glover and Rusty Jones), Qullian Roe, Molly Maher, Bellwether, the House of Mercy Band, the Platte Valley Boys, the Carpetbaggers, Angel, the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, Mike “Razz” Russell and wife Maria Asp, David Hanners, and the Brothers Frantzich.
And at the end of Stanley’s set, Russell (of the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers) and Asp took to the stage with the Jayhawks’ Tim O’Reagan and Trailer Trash’s Nate Dungan, and were later joined by a slew of local singers, among them ex-Replacement Slim Dunlap, for a quirky, fun jam session.
On Sunday, the church seemed to stir a more serious but nonetheless joyous feeling than the previous night. Nearly 700 folks packed into the House of Mercy. The same local bands were on hand, only now singing a different tune that included songs about the Lord, death and the gospel.
The biggest difference from the night before was the absence of the band’s matching beige cowboy hats. The set list included many of the previous night’s songs, but also featured spirited versions of “I Saw The Light”, “Lord I’m Coming Home”, and “Hills Of Home”, an especially touching tribute to Stanley’s late brother Carter.
The evening came to an end with Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys leading the audience through “Farther Along”, which was followed by a farewell from a House of Mercy member, who said, “And may the memory of the music go with you now. Amen.”