It may only be February, but it seems safe to say we’ve already seen the most successful tour of 2002 to be headlined by a septuagenarian. That would be ”Down from the Mountain,” the mobile version of the smash ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which has been playing to sellout crowds in hick-town halls like Radio City Music Hall and, this week, L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre.
Each night, the multi-artist bill is climaxed by a mini-set from 75-year-old bluegrass king Ralph Stanley. He may be a golden oldie, but in the world of hillbilly music, of course, everything is relative: Introducing ”Girl from the Green Briar Shore” at Universal, Stanley offhandedly mentioned that the tune originated ”before my time,” and he wasn’t even trying to be ironic.
Most of the music performed over the course of the three-hour show was in fact written by dead people, but a sizable audience looking for an alternative to today’s inherently ageist, teen-centric pop doesn’t seem to mind heading that far in the opposite direction. The ”O Brother” soundtrack has been certified four-times platinum by the RIAA and listed as one of the 10 bestselling albums of 2001 by SoundScan.
The phenomenon has not escaped the notice of Grammy voters: While ”O Brother” itself has four nominations (for Album of the Year, plus in three country categories), its sequel, the live album ”Down from the Mountain,” is up for best contemporary folk recording; instigator T Bone Burnett is seen as a likely winner for Producer of the Year; and several artists associated with the endeavor are nominated for their own projects. With that in mind, it was easy to view this Universal Amphitheatre show as the unofficial opening party of the L.A. Grammy season, and certainly the pre-awards bash most proudly open to gray-hairs, on and off stage.
There were enough contemporary references in the patter, if not the music itself, to establish that no one was exactly trying to party like it’s 1929. Alison Krauss enthused about her trip to Universal’s theme park earlier in the day, especially singling out her excitement at meeting Spiderman, who, she said, is ”stacked.” Emmylou Harris remembered ”the place when it didn’t have a roof on it” (that is, prior to the ’80s) ”and in keeping with that, I’m gonna sing a song I recorded when I was still a brunette.”