The music commonly referred to as bluegrass tends to come in boundless shapes and sizes, all of which were on display in downtown Raleigh during the last week of September for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass.
This annual event is one like no other, with a week packed to the brim with programming, including an award show and business conference, musical showcases, a public street festival, and multiple ticketed series– the marquee event being the Wide Open Bluegrass event at Red Hat Amphitheater. With literally hundreds of stellar performances taking place throughout the week, The Poke Around definitely had more than a few favorites.
Wednesday night featured an appealing mix of showcases spread out between Raleigh’s most popular venues and the Marriott City Center. The first event we came across was at The Lincoln Theatre as part of the Bluegrass Ramble concert series. A stand out early on was Hank, Pattie, and The Current, a five-piece group with a fully-developed, sophisticated sound that allows them to take their elegant arrangements in a variety of creative directions. There are many different influences that go into The Railsplitters’ music, surrounding Lauren Stovall’s rich, ranging vocals, and resulting in a percussive, almost worldly tinge to their Appalachian roots.
Later that evening, FloydFest and Raleigh Brewing Company co-sponsored a showcase in The Marriott that also featured Hank, Pattie, and The Current, and was kicked off with the energy of South Hill Banks, bringing their quickly ascending brand of invigorated, psychedelic bluegrass music. Also being showcased was Fireside Collective — genuine mountain music, with a modern soundscape — pulling off what they refer to as “progressive folk,” with great dexterity in their playing and singing. Fireside has been touring extremely hard in 2017, and they were definitely in the zone during IBMA week in Raleigh.
Wide Open Bluegrass hosted the biggest names of the week at Red Hat Amphitheater, bringing the roots and the branches of bluegrass together for an unforgettable two days of music. Friday saw a wide variety of styles, from the howling Flatt Lonesome, to the crooning fiddles of the O’Connor Family Band, which featured a nice appearance by the Banjo-Jedi, Bela Fleck, for “Macedonia,” a modern masterpiece performed by a Mark O’Connor with many of the supergroups he’s gotten together over the years. Fleck followed that with a set alongside his wife, Abigail Washburn, as their complimentary banjo styles found a subtly robust sound that never failed to let the audience go. Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas brought us into the twilight hours with a set of classics from the pioneering Country Gentlemen, whom both artists claim as a major influence when it came to pushing the boundaries of bluegrass decades ago.
The Infamous Stringdusters could not have been a better fit to close out Friday night. Currently at the forefront of progressive bluegrass, this band of expert musicians showed everybody just how far the music has come, with the help of a couple of their peers and predecessors, including Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufmann of Yonder Mountain String Bang along with Bush and Fleck both making a return to stage. The Dusters began with a slew of originals, mostly off of their latest album, Laws of Gravity, before inviting out Aijala and Kaufmann for a few tunes, a notable pair being “Get It While You Can > Blockygrass.” Back on their own, they whipped up a storm in the name of Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” straight out of “Hard Life,” before inviting all four guests back out for a memorable end to the set, which culminated in “Whitewater.”
After the Wide Open shows and street stages had closed down, The Pour House kept the party going strong, with the Larry Keel Experience and Jeff Austin Band playing Friday and Saturday night, respectively, to some raucous crowds that came ready to let loose and dance. A highlight of the Keels’ set was Jared Pool’s vocal take on ABB’s “Whipping Post,” really getting the crowd into it. Jeff Austin and his band brought the insane energy we know and love him for on Saturday night, playing the last official show of IBMA week, but the strings would end up being heard well into the bright hours of Sunday morning.
With many artists and industry professionals touring full time to support their craft, it is quite the rarity for them all to find each other in the same place for a whole week of music and camaraderie, and did they ever take advantage of it. The real lifeblood of World of Bluegrass week was what happened in between all of those performances– it was the picking circles and impromptu jams, which seemed to spring up like mushrooms in every corner of the city’s streets, hotels and even offices and municipal buildings.
The News and Observer reported that a record 200,000+ people were in attendance at World of Bluegrass 2017, a good sign for the future of the beloved event in Raleigh, as the current 5-year contract with IBMA and Raleigh expires after next year. Raleigh and bluegrass have made fast friends since the city first rolled out the red carpet for the IBMA’s vast community of artists, professionals and members, and we hope this marriage continues for many more years.
Written by Richard Oakley