Word began to spread through the throngs of bluegrass fans across downtown Raleigh early Saturday afternoon that plans were afoot for a 2 p.m. "Banjo Flash Mob" at the Sir Walter Raleigh statue in front of the Convention Center. This was high comedy, for anyone attending this week's World of Bluegrass: If you were there, you know that the whole thing was a five-day-long Banjo Flash Mob.
From quiet beginnings on Tuesday—just a couple dozen people dotted the pews of the Long View Center for a fest-opening 6 p.m. slot by spirited Austin quartet Wood & Wire—World of Bluegrass gradually gathered steam as the week progressed before finally blowing its top on Saturday. Masses of grass-goers stretched across downtown, from Red Hat Amphitheater and across City Plaza up Fayetteville Street to the north-end stage at Hargett and Wilmington.
If you started at 11 a.m., as I did, and bluegrassed to your heart's content until fireworks expoded over Red Hat at the conclusion of the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell/Steep Canyon Rangers set at 11 p.m., you could have caught more than a dozen quality acts in all manner of venues, from plazas to theaters to ballrooms to hallways. Many fans stayed out long past the fireworks, as the Bluegrass Ramble continued in downtown nightclubs and late-night jams stretched toward dawn in hotel corridors.
A few standout memories, then:
1. Prophets and Messengers of Fayetteville Street
Walking north along Fayetteville's festival booths in the noon hour, I passed by a self-styled street evangelist engaged in full rant with a sign that read "Fear God" on one side and "Stop Sinning" on the other. Turning the corner to the Martin Street stage, I was saved by the sounds of the Iron Mountain Messengers, whose splendid cover of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Cornbread and Butterbeans" was followed by leader Charles Pettee's wise endorsement that the Chocolate Drops "should be at IBMA next year." The Messengers—whose members spanned generations from high school to retirement age—proceeded with a song expressing their "outright disgust" at the environmentally ruinous practice of mountaintop removal. Sing out!
2. Rowan's Rogue Band of Misfits
Peter Rowan could have taken the stage at the Convention Center ballroom for his 2:40 p.m. set on his own; he was billed just as "Peter Rowan" and is fully capable of commanding attention as a solo act. Instead he brought aboard a crew of eight backing players, a charming assortment of ringers (including fiddler Michael Cleveland) and lesser-known players both old and young.
Toward the end of the set, he introduced Charli Robertson, who had been hiding behind Rowan while singing background and playing fiddle for most of the set. A member of the group Flatt Lonesome (who I'd caught briefly at City Plaza a couple hours earlier), Robertson switched to acoustic guitar and performed a stunning number called "The Man Who Made My Mama Cry" that brought to mind the finest early efforts of Iris DeMent. Kudos to Rowan for sharing his spotlight; he's proving to be an ideal elder statesman for bluegrass after the passing of icons such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
3. The Crowning Concerto
Following Rowan on the Convention Center stage, North Carolina-via-Switzerland’s Kruger Brothers—Jens and Uwe Kruger on banjo and guitar, respectively, plus bassist Joel Landsberg—brought forth their ambitous "Appalachian Concerto," accompanied by Chicago’s Kontras Quartet. Commissioned by the Ashe County Arts Council and first performed at Merlefest in 2011, the Concerto is a remarkable and beautiful 30-minute composition, a brilliant blend of bluegrass and classical realms.
Jens Kruger noted at the outset that the performance "may be the first classical event at the IBMA ever." Whether or not that was the case, bridging the gap does have its challenges, as evidenced by the audience breaking out into a standing ovation after the piece's first movement. Jens smiled and noted kindly, "You were not supposed to clap," acknowledging that applause in classical concerts generally holds until the piece's full conclusion. It was all in good cheer, and you could hardly blame the crowd for their spontaneous expression of gratitude for such wondrous music.
A brief encore was nearly the equal of the Concerto itself—and not even for the surprise cameo by Steve Martin on a well-chosen clawhammer instrumental, but rather mainly for a transformative cover of Sting's "Fields of Gold" that Uwe Kruger slyly introduced as "an English folk song" before he sang it. In the hands of Kruger and Kontras, indeed, it became an English folk song. Uwe then brought the show to a perfect conclusion by singing his heartfelt original song "Carolina in the Fall."
4. Chatham County's Line in the Sand
As most of the late-evening concertgoers gathered at Red Hat for the Martin/Brickell/Rangers blockbuster, hometown heroes Chatham County Line gave the World of Bluegrass its finest salute near the end of their set at City Plaza. Leader Dave Wilson explained that he'd gone downtown on Tuesday and took part in the Bluegrass Ramble, coming back amazed at what he was able to see just a bike ride away from his house. Inspired, he wrote a new song to capture the moment.
And though Wilson announced from the stage before playing it that "this is the only time this song is ever going to be played," it's almost a civic obligation for Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane to have CCL bring it back next year as the city's unofficial World of Bluegrass theme song. Titled "Living in Raleigh Now," the tune traces the festival's journey from its Kentucky origins and through its stopover years in Nashville before finally arriving at its new home.
The final chorus:
What was born in Kentucky,
And moved off to Nashville,
Is living in Raleigh now.
If Saturday was any indication, expect the World of Bluegrass to be living in Raleigh for a long time to come.
Peter Blackstock is associate editor at INDY Week.