Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Way back there somewhere, Mustered Courage
If the five days of the World of Bluegrass conference and festival
, which started last night in Raleigh, were a string band’s onstage setlist, the beginning would be a ballad, maybe even a waltz—slow, steady and solid, but only a suggestion of what is to come.
Bike racks that will soon be used to barricade streets and surround stages sat fallow in dark corners last night, police tape tied around them as they awaited inevitable deployment. The Raleigh Convention Center, the festival’s gargantuan hub, felt like an oceanic tanker controlled only by a skeletal crew, full of distant chatter and strings strummed somewhere and infrastructure waiting to be used. And just after midnight, the upstairs hallways of the downtown Marriott, which will teem later this week with musicians jamming
toward the rising dawn, seemed still, as though it were early enough in the week to get an honest night’s rest.
But the musicians were busy, as were many of the clubs, conference rooms and convention center spaces they played during the first night of the now-annual Bluegrass Ramble. In Kings, fans hollered for an encore from the incredible Earl Brothers
, who sound like they’re transmitting live from an old AM radio. And in The Pour House, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
worked to muster energy for the second of their three sets in one night. Between songs, the musicians lamented how long they’d been awake and how distant their travels were to get to Raleigh. And most of their set lagged, too, as though this were their first time away from home. (It wasn’t.) The crowd chattered in response, at least until their last song began with a stunning, stand-up jolt of energy. Greg Blake, a broad-chested vocalist with fleet fingers that snap along the neck of his six-string, launched a cappella into Jimmy Martin’s “Free Born Man,” his huge tone rattling the room like a bass amplifier. People paid attention. The atmosphere crested. They were done, and the customers were satisfied, as the last impression proved to be the lasting one.
never really had that chance. Up some escalators and through massive wooden doors, the Melbourne, Australia, quartet played its third set of the night in the convention center’s fourth-floor ballroom. Less than two-dozen people sat in folding chairs at round tables, looking rather like isolated ants in a room that can hold several thousand. The band maintained, though, thanks to a devil-may-care esprit that had them telling jokes about shaking Béla Fleck’s hand or calling to Mike Compton to join them onstage. (He didn’t.) Their playing seemed technical enough for the purists in the room, and their songs seemed magnetic and open enough for the crowds that should come later for the young group. They are a logical next stop for young listeners after safe passage through the roots gateways of The Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons. You could imagine one of the old-timers, tapping along last night at an empty table, telling a story about seeing them play for no one in an empty ballroom after midnight five years earlier.
The most intimate and engaged crowds of World of Bluegrass’s first night might’ve actually been on the ground floor of the Marriott, not hidden away in hotel rooms upstairs. This year, between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., a set of the hotel’s conference rooms with very bureaucratic names—State EF, Congressional, Ambassador and so on—play host to several showcases of young or regional talent. The Chancellor Room, for instance, was dubbed “The Raleigh Room” for the night and featured several players familiar to the area. Beneath bright canister lights and above garish green carpet, The Grass Cats
stood on a small stage and traded lead duties along its five-man frontline. At that point, IBMA did feel like more a convention or a trade show than a concert, with even the musicians onstage dangling their credentials around their necks. It didn’t help that The Grass Cats play a sort of beach-music bluegrass, with the grit and jumpiness sanded down to a pleasant and boring patina. After bassist Tim Woodall finished “A Woman’s Love,” a terribly rhymed number about exactly what the title suggests, I sought refuge down the hallway.
Turns out, that was the best and last decision I needed to make all night: The Boston Bluegrass Union
hosted a party in the larger and dimmed Congressional Room. When I walked in, fiddle extraordinaire Michael Cleveland was in the middle of an enormous solo that had everyone staring at attention, even his band that stood just to the side of the stage. Bluegrass fans talk a lot about the blues or how high and lonesome this music can and often does get.
But Cleveland, like the best folk musicians, exhibits the ecstasy of necessity when he pulls his bow across his strings. His solos seem bigger than a show of technical prowess, bigger than some need to cite historical bona fides. He is an incredibly present musician, one of the best I’ve ever seen in any genre. When he finished the short set in the air-conditioned space, he pawed behind his glasses to wipe something from his eyes. I’m still not sure if it was sweat or a tear.
Below, watch Béla Fleck's keynote address from last night, and check more of Dan Schram's day one videos at the link below.
The Earl Brothers, "Hard Times Down the Road," "Bad Man," & "Cheater"
Davidson Brothers, "OMFG
Jim Lauderdale, "Joy, Joy, Joy"
Sister Sadie, "All I Can Do" & "Dark Clouds Rising"
Barbwire Bluegrass, "Charlie Walker" & "Hatfields and McCoys"