The opening song at the Uptown Theater on Tuesday night was “The Family Who Prays (Never Shall Part).” It was the perfect prelude for what would follow: an evening of old-time country, bluegrass and gospel songs, many of them hymns about sin, salvation and the glory of the afterlife.
It was a family affair, as well. Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, were the show’s marquee performers. They were backed by White’s father, Buck, on the piano; White’s sister, Cheryl, on vocals; Cooder’s son, Joachim, on drums and Mark Fain on bass.
They delivered a high-paced set — 18 songs in a little more than 90 minutes — filled with impeccable harmonies, some in four parts, and plenty of instrumental virtuosity. If there was one deficiency it was the brevity of some of those instrumentals.
Cooder, who rarely tours, was the main attraction for many of the 500 or so in the theater. He was given ample opportunities to show his fluency and dexterity on the guitar (he played banjo, too), infusing his nifty solos with bits of jazz, blues and other flavors. His slide on “Pan-American Boogie” was a standout. Many of them, however, felt too short; in this case, less wasn’t more.
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Skaggs, too, exhibited his prowess on the fiddle and mandolin, especially on “Pan-American Boogie” and “Uncle Pen.” And Buck White shined at the piano, laying down dancehall, gospel and honky-tonk riffs.
But the timeless songs and the vocals were the focus of this show. The set list included tracks like Merle Travis’ “Sweet Temptation,” a country-waltz that Cooder colored with some jazzy filigrees; Hank Williams’ “A Mansion on the Hill,” a Buck White favorite, Sharon White said; Flatt and Scruggs’ “On My Mind”; Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such as I,” which featured lead vocals from Cooder; the Dillards’ “Old Home Place”; Bill Carlisle’s “Gone Home”; and “Making Believe,” a Kitty Wells hit performed by the three Whites.
On several tunes, including the stellar “Jordan,” a Stanley Brothers hymn, Cheryl White added a fourth layer to the vocals. The rhythm section of Cooder and Fain was solid and suitably understated, servicing the songs with little flair.
Skaggs was the show’s unofficial emcee, and he kept the banter to a minimum. The show lagged slightly a few times when he stopped to tune his mandolin or guitar, and he made light of it. His father, he said, loathed such moments and told his son that it was OK to be a little out of tune because it makes it sound like there are more people in the band.
The show ended with a heavy gospel air, some of it evangelical. It felt like church had broken out during “Hallelujah I’m Ready” and “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus.” They closed with “Reunion in Heaven,” a Southern gospel hymn about salvation and redemption, love on Earth and in the afterlife. Like the opening song, it was a strong marriage of music and message.
The Family Who Prays (Never Shall Part); Sweet Temptation; Mansion on the Hill; On My Mind; Jordan; Soul of a Man; Whiplash Boogie; Pan-American Boogie; A Fool Such as I; Old Home Place; Hallelujah I’m Ready; Making Believe; Gone Home; Wait a Little Longer, Please, Jesus; No Doubt About It; Uncle Pen; Don’t Get Above Your Raising; Reunion in Heaven.