IBMA, Night Two: Too many banjos per capita? | Music

IBMA, Night Two: Too many banjos per capita?

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Hello, people: Detour in the Marriott's "State EF" room - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • Hello, people: Detour in the Marriott's "State EF" room
IBMA's World of Bluegrass
Downtown Raleigh
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

It was hard not to feel a little bit bad for Missy Werner last night. The plaintive Cincinnati singer and her competent, supporting four-piece had but one official showcase scheduled for this year’s World of Bluegrass gathering—at midnight yesterday, in a very desolate Pour House. There were five people on stage and maybe 15 in the crowd, with two couples twirling one another in the front. The rest of the audience sat scattered around benches and tables in the downstairs half of the two-story shotgun bar. Walking in, I’d seen more people on the sidewalk between The Pour House and Tir Na Nog, another World of Bluegrass venue, than inside. The band was disappointed. 

“If you’ve got a phone, call a friend and tell ’em to get in here and make some noise,” explained Missy’s husband and upright bassist, Artie Werner. “Not that you’re not making noise, but we could use some more.”

The sincerity in Werner’s voice as he made the plea was a little soul-crushing, especially considering that no one took out their cell phones to make a call and, at that late hour, odds that the club would suddenly fill were marginal. Despite the relative loneliness of the room, though, I didn’t get the sense that Werner was alone, at least in his sentiment. This year, The Bluegrass Ramble—where fans and industry experts alike hopscotch between venues catching short sets, mostly by upstarts—feels like less of an attraction than during its debut last year. Almost everywhere on Tuesday and Wednesday night, the crowds seemed anemic. To wit, in 2013, more than 1,700 people filed through the Pour House doors on Tuesday night; in 2014, only 270.

As Chatham County Line neared the end of its first World of Bluegrass set Wednesday, Lincoln Theatre booking agent Chris Malarkey watched the city’s free circulator bus, the embattled R-Line, roll toward the club—empty for, he guessed, the seventh time that night. Chatham County Line and Steep Canyon Rangers have both sold out the Lincoln several times on their own, but on a joint Wednesday night bill, less than 400 people watched the Raleigh quartet perform its IBMA anthem, “Living in Raleigh Now.” Malarkey was miffed. 

“The younger bluegrass fans aren’t out tonight,” he told me. “They learned last year that they can save up for the weekend.”

Malarkey, of course, is referring to Bluegrass Wide Open, the massive street fair that closes a large chunk of downtown in order to host free sets by bands who have often played the clubs earlier in the week. Last year, that portion of the festival was a triumph, but this year, it does seem to have curbed local attendance of the earlier paid shows. As Malarkey put it, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

People were out last night, though, and you could see the city slowly transforming from sleepy early-week status to its much more active weekend mode. Kids sat in chairs on the street, fiercely picking banjos and guitars in impromptu jams. Hordes of friends moved noisily between clubs. A crowd gathered to watch an outdoor picking circle near a downtown Starbucks sometime after midnight, no sign of noise ordinance enforcement in sight.

But it’s the density, or lack thereof, that might be the real problem this year. Including the ballrooms and conference rooms that World of Bluegrass uses in the Marriott for its “late-night schedule,” the Ramble has bloomed to include 14 venues, including two very sizable spaces in the Raleigh Convention Center. (This doesn’t include, by the way, the “jam floors” of the Marriott, which continue to be some of the best places to catch the best music in town this week.) And with a daily schedule that stretches officially from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m., there’s a lot of time to catch a lot of bluegrass. There's very little urgency to it all. After last year’s event, the owners of Kings even suggested ending the entertainment earlier each night, so that the fans, clubs and bands weren’t stretched quite so thin. The situation seems, so far, only to have gotten worse.

The best—and, as it turns out, most crowded—sets I saw Wednesday night actually weren’t in rock clubs at all. The Architect isn’t known for its music, but last night, it became the only packed venue I’ve encountered during The Bluegrass Ramble. Colorado’s excellent Railsplitters seemed to respond to the chatty and congested conditions, as each member of the five-piece bounced around the humble stage, smiling broadly. They write good songs, and they are solid players, but what they lack in musical character they seem to account for with charisma. Their set felt like a living room party.

“There’s some rowdiness in this corner over here,” exclaimed fiddler Christine King. “Let’s spread it over there, too.” Unlike with Werner, whose crowd had been hopelessly thin, the audience in The Architect responded to the request, and the atmosphere only seemed to get livelier.

Though the other highlights—the great young quartet Red June in the Vintage church and the devastating voice of Danny Paisley in a Marriott conference room—were less festive, they throve on the audience’s attentiveness, too. When Red June ended its set, for instance, the entire, gray-haired house immediately stood, clapped and yelled. They’d listened to every word and watched every solo, and Red June won them over with charm and grace.

And in the Marriott, long after midnight, the big boulder of a man that is Paisley shuffled in a perfect circle with his traditional band, moving in and out of the single microphone’s field with an inexplicable chemistry. The crowd was small but glued to Paisley’s tone, which sounds like a forlorn echo delivered across some country field. Even when the words were simple, no one sang along. Instead, the people in attendance listened to be dazzled, and the tacit agreement in the room was one of implicit delight: We were all glad we’d stayed up late and arrived there together.

Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, "Margie" & "I Overlooked an Orchid" 

See below for more of Dan Schram's videos from Wednesday night at the World of Bluegrass 2014.

Mike Compton & Joe Newberry, "Righteous Pathway" 

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, "Me and My Fiddle" & "Too Late For Goodbyes" 

Click on the links below for more videos from Wednesday night at the World of Bluegrass 2014.

Flatt Lonesome, "It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again" 

Spinney Brothers, "Grandpa's Way of Life"

Constant Change Bluegrass Band, "Long Lanky Woman"

Moore Brothers, "The Weight"

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