At first blush, the Great High Mountain Tour would seem like little more than a restaging of the Down From the Mountain Tour that many of these same artists embarked on in the wake of the success of “O Brother Where Art Thou?” But unlike that trek — which, for all its memorable music, had a museum-like feel about it — this outing proved as downhome as a traveling Appalachian county fair when it hit the Big Apple on Thursday night.
The change in ambience was most evident in the three-hour program’s second set, which was dominated by inter-band jam sessions, but also turned up in interludes of clog dancing, yodeling and old-fashioned gospel testifying. The evening began with a fine example of the latter, courtesy of the Shape Note singers, whose haunting a capella voicings — heard recently on the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack — set the tenor for the rest of the program.
First set was peppered with luminous bluegrass offerings from acts like the fiddle-centric Reeltime Travelers and old-timey harmony work by the Cox Family. Prepubescent mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull demonstrated a casual command of her instrument, picking through a pair of tunes — accompanied by older brother Cody — without resorting to child-prodigy mugging.
Alison Krauss and Union Station ended the first set and kicked off the second, taking subtly different approaches to the pair of three-song interludes. The band’s initial foray was strictly secular, with Krauss and bandmate Dan Tyminski breezing through surprisingly light takes on dark songs like “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
After a brief intermission, Union Station returned in churchly mode, presenting incandescent versions of “Down to the River to Pray” and “Jesus Hold My Hand” (the latter buoyed by the added vocal presence of Cheryl White and Suzanne Cox). That Sunday morning vibe carried through much of the second set, with country harmonists the Whites taking on the hymn “Higher Power” and Ollabelle the spiritual blues standard “John the Revelator.”
As on the previous trek, Ralph Stanley closed the show, largely because the septuagenarian singer is as impossible to follow in his style as Jimi Hendrix was in his heyday.
Stanley chucked the crowd gently with “Pretty Polly” before casting a chill via his peerless take on “O Death.” Encore — a Stanley-led all-hands-on-deck “Amazing Grace” — was as bright as “Death” was dark, a juxtaposition that encapsulated the dual nature of the spirit and music celebrated throughout the evening.