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We got on the bluegrass bandwagon at this O Brother, Where Art Thou? tribute concert

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Written by
Olivia Gee
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If you're after an evening of fiddle-picking, washboard-thrumming, double bass-pumping bluegrass music, you don’t really need to have seen the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Sure, it would make the harmonious performance more endearing if you knew the plight of the Soggy Bottom Boys, the prison escapees facing clothes-washing sirens and John Goodman's cyclops in this 1930s Americana takeover of Homer’s The Odyssey. But the well-honed tribute to the movie soundtrack stood on its own musical legs at the City Recital Hall on Saturday, March 23.

Sydney big band folk gang the Morrisons combined their lightning-fast strumming with the soaring harmonies of Aria Award-winning All Our Exes Live in Texas and performances by Brian Campeau and Luke Escombe for the laughably long-titled show Man of Constant Sorrow: A Tribute to the Music of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. These blues and folk artists have been bringing the Grammy Award-winning songs originally curated for the film by T Bone Burnett, to the stage for five years, with sellout success. The show also includes songs not featured in the movie. 

And time hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm or ability to engage their audience. We were entranced by All Our Exes Live in Texas as the a capella sirens singing ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby’, and there was audible toe tapping as the seated crowd sang along when the Morrisons joyfully led ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and the more sombre ‘Down to the River to Pray’ – audience sheet music was helpfully supplied.

The standard gig format of opening acts and headliners was replaced with a kind of country fair talent show-style performance. Bands and artists were called and recalled onto the stage, mish-mashing together for different collaborations and solo acts. This was all coordinated by comedian and ABC radio regular Tommy Dean. While the multilayered concert required some kind of MC-ing, we were itching to get through what felt like unnecessary clowning and political commentary (cue lock-out laws discussion) and back into the music.

Because what it’s really about is that distinctive bluegrass sound, which these performers have mastered collaboratively and in solo sessions. We were equally impressed with Georgia Mooney’s lonely lap steel strumming and Brian Campeau slinging long-ranging yodelling as we were with the schmaltzy novelty of the Morrions' version of ‘In the Jailhouse Now’ and the big finale of ‘You Are My Sunshine’, which brought the whole company to the stage.

It has been almost 20 years since Everett, Pete and Delmar escaped from that Mississippi chain gang, but their runaway soundtrack only seems to get better with age in this homage to the macabre and cheerful stories of American bluegrass music.

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