For all the talk of admittedly thin attendance in clubs for this year’s Bluegrass Ramble showcases
Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Chatham County Line takes a bow in Raleigh City Plaza.
, the free Bluegrass Wide Open street festival certainly didn’t suffer the same fate on its opening day. I’m no expert—or even a skilled amateur—at estimating attendance figures, but I was blown away upon arriving downtown shortly before 3 p.m. Parts of Fayetteville Street were already congested enough that they were a bit of a challenge to navigate. Sure, lots of those folks were badge-wearing conference attendees that had little reason to be stuck inside the convention center on a pleasant Friday afternoon, but many were also lacking the telltale credentials around their necks, suggesting they’d skipped out of work early or entirely to catch some tunes.
The first two acts I saw Friday afternoon represented the association’s international designation, if not the bluegrass part—not that I minded the variety four days into the festival. New Country Rehab’s
fiddle augments a standard electric guitar, bass, and drums rock combo, landing the Toronto foursome more in roots-rock territory. A spunky, sped-up cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy” fell perfectly in line with the high-voltage twang of its originals.
Longtime favorites The Duhks
followed with its recently overhauled line-up, which features new members on guitar, fiddle and percussion alongside original vocalist Jessee Havey and founding banjo player/bandleader Leonard Podolak. Though Havey and Podolak—both Jewish—joked that they’d have a “Jewgrass” booth at the convention center, the Winnipeg outfit’s eclectic, worldly folk has never had much in common with bluegrass. The Duhks drew mostly from their 2014 release, Beyond the Blue
, which finds the group linking old-time clawhammer banjo with Cajun rhythms and Latin hand percussion with Celtic fiddling. There seemed to be a lack of chemistry as this version of the band—which has been performing together for less than a year—is still finding its legs, but the quintet played with the kind of zeal that’s true to The Duhks’ spirit. If only Havey and company would eventually live up to their threat of moving to North Carolina, the state would be better off for it.
Speaking of home state acts, Chatham County Line repeated the act of closing down the City Plaza stage, as they did on Saturday last year. Despite the ongoing threat of rain—“Don’t fret,” WRAL’s Greg Fishel told the crowd in a terrifically pun-filled, cringe-inducing introduction—the Plaza was packed. Raleigh’s own bluegrass ambassadors gave them reason to stay, working energetically around their center mic while singer Dave Wilson’s witty stage banter tied together cuts from the quartet’s catalog and tributes to the likes of Doc Watson. The set was heavy on the band’s latest, Tightrope
, which Wilson wryly reminded would be eligible for IBMA awards next year.
“We might win if literally every one of you here joins the IBMA for about $7,000 and then votes for us.” It was probably not the kind of thing that’ll endear the hometown boys to stuffy bluegrass suits that decide who hosts and performs at the awards shows, an honor that CCL should certainly get before or if the IBMAs leave Raleigh.
No matter, though: Near the end of the set, after playing the festival’s de-facto anthem, “Living In Raleigh Now,” the songwriter admitted that the veteran quartet started out wanting to be a bluegrass band, but “we realized it was more fun just being us.” Then, in a true Wilson moment, he explained how he was introduced to Kris Kristofferson at age 11 thanks to a “stack of moldy Playboys” that he and some pals stole from the treehouse of older boys, before launching into “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
The soulful, pained harmonies were wonderful, and every note seemed picked with feeling—something that couldn’t be said about a few of those well-backed but very vanilla bluegrass bands that were given a worldwide audience from the stage of Memorial Auditorium barely 24 hours earlier.
Check out some of Dan Schram's videos from World of Bluegrass 2014 below.
Town Mountain, "Ruination Line" & "Lawdog"
James King, "Crazy Heart"
Balsam Range, "Last Train to Kitty Hawk"
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen