Bluegrass Is Wide Open

Friday October 3 2014.  Raleigh NC.

It’s another beautiful day here in Raleigh.  Still no rain on my trip which started on 14 September.

As I won’t be back until late, I packed carefully for the day after a rudimentary Days Inn breakfast.

I was at the Raleigh Convention Centre by around 10am and obtained my wrist band for entry into the Wide Open event, various side shows and the Exhibit Hall.  Upstairs to the Ballroom to see an early set by Australian premier bluegrass outfit Mustered Courage, who were on the very last day of their exceedingly compact U.S. tour.

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The Mustered Courage Crowd – Convention Centre Ballroom Raleigh

New songs “Burning Bridges” and “Draw Fire” were excellent, as was the rest of their material.  It was interesting to see the band play twice here in comparison with back in Australia.  After all this time together on the tour, there’s an increasing grit in their music and, while the amusing banter on stage remains, there’s more of a sense of urgency and focus about the way they present themselves. Their musicianship and tautness as a unit has been magnified as a result of their recent gruelling schedule.

The crowd really liked it too – the boys got a standing ovation.

A quick catch up with Nick from the band (they all looked understandably bedraggled given their intense show commitments) and then I headed to the Red Hat Amphitheatre where the single-stage two day headline concert event was being staged.  As there was no reasonable coffee on offer, I decided on a Wasteful Waikiki smoothie for some sustenance.

Balsam Range were the first act of many for the day. The band only last night played a song at the IBMA Awards, won for Entertainer Of The Year and Vocal Group Of The Year and one of the singers, Buddy Melton, won Vocalist of the Year.  Accordingly, I was keen to them for a full set to gauge for myself.  Really good players and first-cut harmonies, but with a routine that was a little too cheesy for my tastes.  The song “Georgia Battlefield” was poignant and powerful and the closing number “The Moon Over Memphis” was also top notch.

DSC01924Fifteen minutes later and Chatham County Line were on.  A band that I have followed for some time and really enjoyed their performance at The Station Inn in Nashville as part of the recent Americanafest.  At last year’s IBMA event they were not allotted a prestigious Red Hat stage slot, so their stocks clearly are on the rise, following the release of their seventh album Tightrope (which I finally purchased here – the most appropriate place of all to so do I guess).  The outfit played a number of songs from their latest release and from their terrific back catalogue.  “The Traveler”, “Lonesome In Caroline” and “Living In Raleigh Now” (the latter having become a much-loved anthem here for obvious reasons).  The crowd just lapped it up and I really appreciated seeing them again.

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Chatham County Line

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The Crowd Is Upstanding For Chatham County Line

The Exhibit Hall is another world.

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Convention Centre Exhibit Hall

Stands are dedicated to musical instruments, accessories, artists, radio stations, music festivals, music heritage travel, website developers, you name it.  I spent forty five minutes looking and chatting and learning and I didn’t even get past the first row.  I will allot more time later.

I was ready for a coffee and Starbucks in the Marriott two blocks away was the most convenient.  On the way, I stopped for a while as virtuoso Rob Ickes was running a dobro workshop.  Coffee in hand, I watched some of the Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper set on the nearby City Plaza Stage and returned to the Exhibit Hall for while.

The Earls Of Leicester were performing at the Red Hat Stage, but as I had seen them up close and personal at the Yazoo Brewery in Nashville two weeks back.  I thought I’d try something new – which meant returning to the City Plaza Stage and watching the entire set of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen.  “The Letter” by The Boxtops was the opening number, blue-grassed up, all instruments a-blazing.  It is hard to imagine mandolin, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and banjo alone doing justice to The Band’s “The Night They Drove All Dixie Down”, but it worked very well.  All accomplished musicians with great harmonies.  A gentle breeze had worked up, making the weather perfect.  My reserved seat was in the final row, slab dab in front of the mixing desk and the sound was just right.  The crowd were polite and attentive and there was no extraneous noise except for the occasional freight train whistle.  The band finished off with the title track of its recent album Cold Spell, a departure from the traditional bluegrass themes.  They performed the song at the IBMA Awards last night (they won the gong for Instrumental Group Of The Year).  I liked it then and I liked it even more today.  The song was a little low-key for an Awards show, but I admired them choosing something to contrast some of the other material on display.

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Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Time to head to the Hargett Street stage about four blocks away to catch the end of a set of a band called New Country Rehab.  A modern, high-voltage Canadian alt. country band, they really had the street stage pumping.  I saw The Duhks at Compass Studios in Nashville at Americanafest and was keen to see them on a bigger stage and they did not disappoint.  Exhibiting a lot of power, they motored through tracks from the recent Beyond The Blue album – “Banjo Roustabout” and the title track were terrific, as well as a well-crafted take on “Ring Of Fire”.  Lead vocalist Jessee Havey’s voice was excellent.

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Jessee Havey of The Duhks

Headed back down the main street, The Barefoot Movement, who won Band Of The Year at the IBMA Momentum Awards, were putting on an energetic show at The Martin Street Stage.  More folk and Americana in their musical style.  Nashville-based, they are really gaining some serious recognition.

Husband and wife banjo players Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn decided to record a duet album and tour together.  The self-titled album has just been released.  Fleck has taken the instrument into unusual territory like funk, jazz and classical, while Washburn prefers to stay in the more traditional claw hammer style.  The first track I heard fully was “New South Africa” that Fleck penned on a tour of that nation just after Mandela had been elected President and it was a stirring instrumental.  While deep into the tune, a freight train passed right alongside blowing its steam with gusto and with regularity, which caused some mirth.  The couple’s set and banter were priceless.  Hard not to like.

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Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

The Steep Canyon Rangers continued the line-up at The Red Hat.  The band’s star has risen considerably and they have become bluegrass superstars.  In some part this is due to their collaboration with funny man and accomplished banjoist Steve Martin, but in greater part it’s the result of the band’s musical excellence.  I had seen Steve and the band at New Orlean’s Jazz Fest a few years back – a thoroughly entertaining and often very amusing set, but it was dominated by Martin.  Today, the six piece band included a percussionist which is unusual at this event and I was eager to see the Rangers do their own thing.  “Stand and Deliver” was impressive.  Nicky Sanders the violinist is full of energy, never keeping still.  Graham Sharp’s deep voice is effective.  The title track of the new album Tell The Ones I Love shone, “Las Vegas” had a brilliant and lengthy instrumental introduction, “Rescue Me” and a frantic “On This Train” closed the set.  Another standing ovation.

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The Steep Canyon Rangers

I was hungry but disappointed with the food available at The Red Hat.  There was 15 minutes until Hot Rize, the next act.  The options were pretzels (no), popcorn (no), hot dog (definitely not) or a packet of potato chips (oh,if you must!).

Hot Rize featuring Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers were up next.  The history I found fascinating and I hope I have this right.  Hot Rize rose to prominence in the early 1980s, with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, Pete Wernick and Charles Sawtelle.  The band released six studio albums until they disbanded in 1990.  From 1991-98 the band played several reunion dates each year.  Following the death in 1999 of Charles Sawtelle, Hot Rize re-grouped in 2002, adding award-winning guitarist Bryan Sutton.  In 2014 Hot Rize released the first studio album with Sutton, When I’m Free and set out on their first tour in decades.  Red Knuckles et al is in fact Hot Rize’s alter ego, where they dress in outlandish cowboy outfits, play straight country music with electric instruments, almost unrecognisable from the previous incarnation and all seeming to play different instruments as well.  Another change after some great hi-jinxs and Hot Rize closed the set.

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Hot Rize

It was now past 9pm.  I needed food and fast, given that the super jam was up next at The Red Hat.

I exited the Amphitheatre in great haste and immediately stumbled on the Southern Smoke BBQ tent which was closing up.  Just in time, I was served with pulled pork, potatoes with a delicious hot sauce, beans and slaw.  It was absolutely out-of-this world delicious, in fact the best food I had in Raleigh.  I provided feedback to that effect and, before you could say bluegrass, I’d met Matthew Register, owner of Southern Smoke BBQ.  Let me tell you folk if you can get some of that Southern Smoke BBQ, you will be happy.  Unfortunately, I could got get any answers from Matthew as to what was in that secret potato sauce.

Southern Smoke BBQ was the best food I had in Raleigh

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Matthew, a friend and yours truly

Feeling much better, I was ready for one last musical performance, and it turned out to be the best of the day.  Sam Bush (mandolin and vocals), Bela Fleck (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar), Edgar Meyer (bass) and Stuart Duncan (violin) put on a ninety-minute, jamming, virtuoso performance that was breathtaking.  There were tour de force tunes for every instrument on stage, solos, folk, bluegrass, Irish lilts, improvisations galore, a Bob Dylan cover (“Girl Of The North Country”), a section of different duets.  When Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek mandolin player Chris Thile joined in at the end, all hell broke loose.  It was 11pm, I had my majestic music fill for the day – nothing could surpass what I’d just seen and heard.

Time to get back to the motel for a rest.

Author: Rob Dickens

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