IBMA Wide Open Bluegrass Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh, NC 9/27, 9/28/13

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Jeremy Garrett, fiddler for The Infamous Stringdusters and board member of the International Bluegrass Music Association, told the board that they needed to create a “bluegrass frenzy” in Raleigh for their annual event’s first year in North Carolina. Garrett and the rest of the IBMA must have been giddy with the results of their work, because frenzy is exactly what they got. For 5 days, bluegrass consumed the heart of downtown Raleigh like no event had ever done before.

The event consisted of several separate but intertwined entities: the IBMA Awards Show, the Bluegrass Ramble (a 5-night series of shows in various downtown venues) and Wide Open Bluegrass. Wide Open Bluegrass featured the big names of the genre at Red Hat Amphitheater and Raleigh Convention Center, while also offering free shows on stages throughout downtown and workshops led by the likes of Rob Ickes and Pete Wernick.

The 5900-capacity amphitheater was full every night and thousands more jammed the streets of the City Plaza area. All were treated to perfect weather, amazing music, fair-style fun, and an inconceivable amount of impromptu jams. There were jams in the hotels, jams in the street, jams in restaurants and jams at Starbucks. The constant sound of bluegrass was inescapable, and it seemed that one out of ten people were carrying an instrument. Even if one spent the most time at Red Hat, just traversing downtown to grab a bite to eat became an assault on the senses.

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Every attendee had their own unique experience, but the musical highlights were definitely at the amphitheater. Friday was one of the most memorable days of music the city has ever seen, capped off by a dream lineup of bluegrass legends. The beginning was certainly interesting, as North Carolina’s own Grass Cats began before lunch and were followed by Czech bluegrass outfit Druha Trava, the bluesy Nashville outfit The Steeldrivers, and the more traditional sounds of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Then, as the crowd swelled and the sun began to set, Greensky Bluegrass ushered in an evening of bluegrass at its most unique. The Michiganders fearless forays into the instrumental unknown proved a perfect soundtrack to the venue’s busy transition, and Paul Hoffman’s yearning vocals came off especially well – though he was mighty distracted by signature “shimmer wall” that flanks the venue.

Del McCoury Band’s incontestable show is always a delight, and as one of the patriarchs of the form, he gets a hero’s welcome wherever he plays. Classics like “Bluegrass Breakdown” and the surging “All Aboard” dotted the setlist, which Del still strives to vary each night. The first real breath of fresh air, though, was the Punch Brothers set. Brimming with improvisation and dotted with crowd pleasing tunes like “Rye Whiskey”, “Who’s Feeling Young Now”, and a flawless cover of The Seldom Scene’s “Through the Bottom of the Glass”, their set proved that anything is possible in the realm of bluegrass instrumentation. The nightcap was a gathering of hall of famers comprised almost entirely of winners from the first IBMA Awards in 1990 – Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Tony Rice, and Marc Schatz, with newly anointed Fiddle Player of the Year Jason Carter filling in for the waylaid Alison Krauss. The awe-inspiring “clusterpluck” that followed was as legendary as the players, each one getting ample time to shine on plenty of bluegrass standards. McCoury and Bush made for a dream vocal combo, and Douglas, in particular, provided heaps of hot string work.

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Saturday’s schedule was perhaps a bit less appealing on paper, but plenty of collaboration made for another unforgettable day. Raleigh’s Kickin’ Grass Band funneled their excitement into a fine lunchtime set, The Gibson Brothers stunned with their award-winning harmonies, IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Della Mae filled the concrete canyons of downtown with their powerful vocals, and Dailey and Vincent put the pedal to the metal for some blazing traditional bluegrass. Bela Fleck, Ronnie McCoury, Danny Paisley, Alan Bartram, and Jason Carter reprised their all-star group appearances from 2012, offering a fine version of Jimmy Martin’s “Hold Whatcha Got”, among other tunes, all of which featured Paisley’s inimitable vocals.

The Seldom Scene sounded exquisite as ever while doling out their impeccable harmonies and ever-changing setlist, and the next band on the schedule seemed to be aspiring to the same kind of high-gloss bluegrass perfection. The Infamous Stringdusters possess an almost pop sensibility, not crossing into radio country territory, but offering the same amount of astoundingly perfect vocals and undeniably catchy songs. When they played “Fork in the Road” in Raleigh, the audience reaction was as spirited as it had been all weekend. No response could match the ovation garnered by the final act, though.

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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were as genuinely entertaining as any other act that has taken the stage at Red Hat. However canned the material might be at this point, Martin and the band served it up with plenty of love and hilarity…and if you’d never seen the band before, it was new to you, and it was amazing. Martin’s brilliant banter about bluegrass, bands, and breakups – the latter of which preceded the riotous “Jubilation Day” – is firmly supported by the fine music. Bela Fleck, the man with the most time on stage, appeared for the instrumental “The Crow”, and Edie Brickell, who recently released an album with Martin, joined in for “Get Along Stray Dog”, “When I Get To Asheville,” and other selections from the album. It was a finale that matched the whole of the engaging, personable, and altogether impressive festival. The bar has been set incredibly high for the next two years in Raleigh, and it looks like the city aims to keep IBMA in town as long as possible.

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