Bluegrass legend Del McCoury has been touring for more than 40 years, but the 73-year-old still likes to shake it up when he performs. "I do an all-request show where the audience shouts out what they want to hear. The band doesn't know what we are going to do, I don't know what we are going to do. That's what keeps it exciting," he said, speaking from his home in Nashville.
With his distinctive high-ranged vocals, some nimble guitar picking and sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, the Del McCoury Band are returning favorites at this year's Flights and Sounds Summer Festival, a world music feast that spans five themed weekends during the month of August at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
"He was one of our most popular performers last year. He has an extraordinary band and to see them play and harmonize really gets the crowd going," said Douglas Rankin, president of Irvine Barclay Presents, which curates the festival. McCoury will be featured at the Made in America weekend on Aug. 23-25 that will showcase blues, swing and great guitar music.
Now in its fifth year, the free concert series set in an expansive, 1,500-acre metropolitan open space that's twice the size of New York's Central Park has expanded its menu by focusing on different world music themes, featuring Latin jazz legend Poncho Sanchez, Persian electronica band Niyaz, iconic South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a Brits and Celts weekend with Irish American band Solas led by veteran musician Seamus Egan and British buzz-band the Dunwells.
"This is really a flagship, signature event for the park," said Henry Korn, the manager of arts, culture and heritage with the Orange County Great Park. Three of the park's venues are utilized for the concerts including a main runway stage, a dance concourse with a large wooden checkerboard floor and the newly constructed, one-acre Palm Courts Arts Complex, which is rimmed with 54 illuminated picturesque canary palms. "It really has the feel of an outdoor nightclub," said Rankin.
The biggest draw is expected to be Ladysmith Black Mambazo, performing on the main stage next week as part of the World Beat weekend. The South African musical ambassadors have just completed a European tour with Paul Simon commemorating his landmark 1986 album "Graceland," a Grammy Award-winner that brought the ensemble's distinctive vocal style to the world stage.
"We are completely reenergized and re-invigorated," said Albert Mazibuko, who has been a member since 1969. "Playing with Paul Simon again brought back so many memories, and we have new younger members in the group so it was a great time for them to experience it."
As well as paying tribute to "Graceland," the colorful choral group will also be performing tracks from its latest album, "Songs From a Zulu Farm." "These are the songs our grandmothers taught us," Mazibuko said. "They are very traditional and joyous songs that we would dance and sing to as children."
As well as highlighting world-renowned heritage acts, the festival also introduces audiences to new artists. The Dunwells, scheduled to perform at Lollapalooza in Chicago this weekend, will appear on Aug. 17 in support of their debut album "Blind Sighted Faith." Featuring two brothers and two cousins from Yorkshire, England, the folk-rockers' rootsy songwriting and lush harmonies have been earning raves, including some kind tweets from director Cameron Crowe.
"It's really quite amazing," said 24-year-old singer-guitarist Joseph Dunwell on the phone from a tour stop in Kentucky. "It's just been a really crazy dream come true for us. We have an Americana sound, but I think people love the fact that we give it a British edge."
An eclectic celebration of Latin jazz kicks off the festival this weekend, with congo great Poncho Sanchez teamed with New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, who will explore the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban conguero Chano Pozo, who together helped give birth to the Latin form in the early 1940s.
"I've been taking this music around the world for 32 years," Sanchez said. "When you come out to see us, we have something for the whole family. You are guaranteed to have a good time."