The Del McCoury Band is a stagehand's dream. At the State Theatre on Thursday, the sublimely traditional bluegrass quintet's stage gear consisted of one microphone and no amplifiers, and members carried their own instruments, cases and all. Beverage demands were minimal. Somebody from the crowd sent a beer up to the band, but the lone longneck sweated out the show, untouched.
The communal microphone, born out of technical and economic limitations in the early days of bluegrass, remains a McCoury trademark, and also a crucial component of the combo's act. The band, dressed in suits and ties, stood equidistant from the mike stand in a semicircle when sharing vocal and instrumental duties. But when it came time for McCoury's high-lonesome tenor to take over for a verse on "Cold Rain and Snow," or for son Ronnie McCoury to flaunt his freakish facility with a mandolin over several blazing bars of Jimmy Martin's "She Left Me Again," the soloist would merely lean forward or, for effect, temporarily break the semicircle by bolting a step or two toward the audience. Watching the players control the dynamic range of the music by bobbing back and forth or do-si-do-ing around one another is by itself worth the price of admission, and comes off like an Appalachian version of the Pips.
Del McCoury, now 60, has dabbled with pop success only in the past few years of a career now in its fifth decade. Many younger fans came to know of his work only because Phish, the Vermont jam band, recorded a version of "The Beauty of My Dreams," which he wrote and reprised for the State Theatre crowd well into his 100-minute set. He broke a string in the middle of a flat-picking run during that song, and, in keeping with his don't-bother-the-roadies attitude, he changed it all by himself as the band played on.