The International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival happened in Raleigh on October 2nd for the third time this year, and the event is entrenched in the Raleigh music schedule for at least a couple more years. For the most part, the non-affiliated venues around downtown try to capitalize on the convergence of pickin’ patrons by offering their own acoustic, folk, or bluegrass bills. But on one fateful Friday night, as the bluegrass event swallowed downtown Raleigh for the third time, there was a fine convergence of diversity. The IBMA moved their event out of the relentless rain and into the Raleigh Convention Center, creating a legendary nexus of acoustic music, while The Pour House Music Hall just happened to be stocked with very electric, very experimental acts.
It’s tough for the IBMA to keep their lineup fresh. They need bands that will draw 5000 people to the ticketed event, which is a very small pool of talent in the bluegrass realm. The main stage acts were wholly unsurprising from a booking standpoint, but just fine as far as performance is concerned. Still, it’s tough to get excited for yet another Gibson Brothers set. Bringing more light to the somewhat stagnant situation was that the festival was forced to move indoors, removing the bustling, open-air downtown atmosphere that defined the event in its first two years in Raleigh. Make no mistake – the IBMA did the right thing by heeding weather forecasts and moving the event indoors, managing a miracle of logistics in the process. However, the narrow scope of the event is beginning to wear a bit thin.
The members of Balsam Range were inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor society, before their set. The presentation gave the proceedings a regal feel, and the atmosphere of the convention center expo hall was very much like an awards show, with stage lighting to match. The sound in the cavernous space was surprisingly good, with only a touch of unavoidable echo. Still, the atmosphere proved stiff and disengaging with the front row of the audience separated from the stage by a gulf of space and constant chatter ringing through the hall.
Another Carolina band, Steep Canyon Rangers, followed Balsam Range and did their best to invigorate the audience. Offering several songs from their new album, Radio, the band proved that there is somewhere for bluegrass to go in the future. The end of their set featured the ever-present Sam Bush on mandolin, and their collaboration proved to be one of the most exciting moments of the night. You can guarantee that at least one of those acts will be at the festival each year.
Up on the ballroom level of the convention center, Town Mountain drew people into their venue from the food vendors and crafters that jammed the hallways. They’re a younger band in the bluegrass genre, but they played it fairly straight, letting their grasp of the form shine through remarkable musicianship. They did, however, introduce their cover of “Big River” as being inspired by The Grateful Dead rather than Johnny Cash, showing that their roots stray a little farther from the bluegrass forest than most. They love to stretch out as well, and a spirited interplay between banjo and fiddle proved one of the most memorable moments of their set.
Back in the expo hall, the largest audience of the day gathered for Alison Krauss and Union Station. AKUS was the main event of this year’s festival, having cancelled in 2013 due to Krauss’ vocal issues. The band was routinely stellar, but the show certainly could have benefitted from the outdoor feel that was sadly washed away for the entire weekend. The crowd was uptight and bordering on somber for most of the show, though Dan Tyminski’s vocals and Jerry Douglas’ dobro riled them up a few times. The setlist never strayed from the norm, though Tyminski’s “Rain, Please Go Away” was appropriate for the weekend.
Through spotty downpours, I made my way to something completely different. The Pour House Music Hall, which is approaching its 20th year as the musical bastion of Moore Square, sported a supremely weird and irresistible bill – Consider the Source and Mike Dillon Band. A staple at the Pour House and a favorite of the staff, Dillon arrived with a completely different band than the last time I saw him. A trio of drums, bass, and guitar/synth musicians replaced the band from his last album. While some of that band’s ferocious tightness and personality was definitely missing, Dillon seemed to embrace the new sound, leading the young group through a reworked version of “Hero The Burro” and something called “Bobby J. Was An Anchor Baby”. It would have been surprising to hear a chorus about citizenship loopholes at the bluegrass festival, but it is par for the course as far as Dillon is concerned. A finer jazz/punk vibraphonist and table player there shall never be, nor ought there be.
Consider the Source specializes in jaw-dropping musicianship and brain-boiling psychedelic textures, and if that isn’t enough happening to a person at once, they’ll fry your eyes with their light show as well. This trio takes their craft very seriously, and so do their fans, which on this night included a wide range of metalheads, hipsters, hippies, and assorted bar-hoppers who were drawn into the magic. The word “entrancing” barely begins to describe their overwhelming aural assault. The band knew where songs started and ended, and no one else seemed to care what happened in between. As long as the trio made with the schizophrenic, trancey, Area-51-via-Istanbul instrumental alchemy, everything was just fine. Theirs is not a show easily forgotten. I bet even the tipsy wanderers remembered the band’s name the next morning.