Old Masters and Young Energy: The IBMA Wide Open Bluegrass Festival
This is the 29th year that The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has been presenting the World of Bluegrass. The five-day event includes four days of trade meetings, showcases for new talent, an awards show, and a weekend bluegrass festival called the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival. With so much activity, it’ll require two articles to cover the week: this first one reviews the festival, the next will review the trade meetings, the Bluegrass Ramble and showcases for new talent, and the Awards Show.
The festival takes place at a number of stages, with the primary stage being the Red Hat Amphitheater, pictured above. Seating around 6,000, it’s an outdoor venue with excellent acoustics, and this year a number of free seats were available to the public. Fayetteville Street becomes a pedestrian-only walkway for six blocks, packed with vendors and seven outdoor stages to visit.
Darin and Brooke Aldridge performed at several locations over the weekend, including at the Awards Ceremony, where Brooke was honored as the Vocalist of the Year, her third consecutive win. Their harmonies are classic, and her voice is powerful and clear. Her version of Ian and Sylvia’s “Someday Soon” brings down the house everywhere. The song is from their Faster and Farther album, which also includes John Cowan and Vince Gill, two of the finest singers anywhere, and is a must for those who appreciate tight harmony singing.
Sister Sadie, winners of Vocal Group of the Year, were the opening act at the Red Hat on Friday. The all-woman quintet features DaleAnn Bradley on guitar, winner of five vocal performance awards. Their powerful traditionally-oriented set got the night off to great start.
The Gibson Brothers played a set at the City Plaza stage with their smooth harmonies and impeccable playing.
Balsam Range has been awarded Entertainer of the Year honors twice and Vocal Group of the year once. Their solid set included their recent song “The Girl Who Invented the Wheel,” but their set really got interesting when the NC State University Symphony joined them on stage for several numbers, most notably the Beatles’ number “If I Needed Someone.”
Molly Tuttle was next up at the Red Hat. Her new album When You’re Ready, which is a departure from her pure bluegrass history, is more pop-based but still includes some amazing flatpicking. Her set included “Take the Journey,” “Don’t Let Go,” and “Light Came In (Power Went Out).” She added “Good Enough” from her Rise EP, and her flatpicking tour de force, Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”
I’m With Her has been called a “quiet supergroup”. Sara Watkins had played with Nickel Creek and is currently with the Watkins Family Band. Sarah Jarosz had a career as a solo artist; a song from her first album, “Song Up in Her Head,” was nominated for a Grammy, and her fourth album, Undercurrent, won two Grammy awards. Aoife O’Donovan was best known as the lead singer for the progressive string band Crooked Still and for her touring with Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Tour. Their first album See You Around has been enthusiastically received, and they received the “Vocal Group of the Year” award at last month’s Americana Music Awards. Their set showed off their intricate, almost hypnotic harmonies, their versatility (all of them are multi-instrumentalists), and their songwriting skills. They played a wonderful version of Joni Mitchell‘s “Carey” and showed some instrumental skills on “Billy in the Low Ground.”
I’ve been a fan of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen for a few years now. Solivan, from California by way of Alaska, Mike Munford from Baltimore, Chris Luquette from Seattle and now living in Brooklyn, and Jeremy Middleton, who spent years playing with the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band, are not your usual collection of bluegrass players, but their instrumental chops are among the best. Munford is one of the best chromatic banjo players alive, and Luquette is a master flatpicker. They led off their set with their cover of the Box Top’s “The Letter,” and things went up from there. By the time they finished their version of the Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post,” the crowd was on its feet.
Never Come Down is a Portland-based band that generated a lot of enthusiasm after winning the band contest at the Rockygrass Festival in Colorado. Their showcase at the Marriot Capital Room offered a great mix of Americana-oriented bluegrass, switching from emotional duets by Joe Suskind and Crystal Lariza to inventive hard-core bluegrass songs like “Moscow is the Town that Never.” Fiddler Lily Sawyer provides great support to the blazing flatpicking, banjo and mandolin breaks. Definitely a band to watch.
I made it to the Davie Street stage to catch a performance by Tommy Edwards and the Bluegrass Experience. The band was one of the few organized bands in the Triangle area when I lived there in the late ‘70s. While some of the personnel have changed over the years, many players have gone on to play with top acts (including Bill Monroe) but have found their way back to play with Edwards. The longest continuously playing band in North Carolina, they have been making music now for 48 years. Relaxed and tight, they put out a great set of bluegrass standards and originals.
Kristy Cox was on my list as a must-see. The Australia native’s most recent album Ricochet debuted at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass charts. Nominated for both New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, she is now based in Nashville. Her country-oriented vocals with her excellent band, including Asheville native John Duncan on fiddle, provided a great introduction to her music.
At the Red Hat, an amazing collection of musicians participated in a tribute show honoring the pioneers of folk-oriented string music, Hazel and Alice. Hazel Dickens passed away in 2011, but she and Alice Gerrard were legendary early bluegrass performers, frequently known for their politically charged pro-union and feminist songs. Growing up in coal camps, Hazel experienced labor issues first-hand. In the mid-’60s she joined forces with Alice Gerrard, and they became the first women to record a bluegrass album in 1965, on the Folkways label. For this tribute, Alice was joined by a group of both well-known and newly minted traditionalists. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who have been making string music for adults and kids for more than 35 years, joined legendary California songwriter, fiddler and singer Laurie Lewis. Add in two of the young masters of traditional music, Tatiana Hargreaves and Allison de Groot, and banjo player Justin Hiltner, and we had a tour de force of American string music.
Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver took the Red Hat Stage next. Playing his usual tight set, Doyle is always a relaxed performer and shares some great repartee with his long-time dobro player Josh Swift. As always, several four-part gospel numbers were mixed in with some blazing picking. Now in his mid-70s, Doyle just keeps on picking.
Their closing set from Friday night had to be rescheduled because of the weather, but the Ringers managed to work in a short set on Saturday. A true bluegrass supergroup, this was their first public performance. Organized by dobro master Jerry Douglas, the group includes Union Station and Soggy Bottom Boys’ Dan Tyminski (guitar), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), fiddle master Christian Sedelmyer, and Grammy-winning bass player Todd Phillips. In a tribute to Tony Rice, the band performed “Shadows” and provided a great version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” Looking forward to seeing what these guys can come up with in the studio, because it will be epic.
The finale for the weekend was a two-hour long tribute to Del McCoury. Still touring at the age of 80, Del co-hosted the awards show with Jim Lauderdale and also won the Collaborative Recording of the Year Award with Joe Mullins and the Radio Rambers. His sons Ronnie and Rob began the set with pictures of their father as a child and went through a pictorial history of his career, including a stint with Bill Monroe in the early ‘60s. Del won the very first Male Vocalist of the Year award from the IBMA in 1990 and again in 1993 and was named Entertainer of the Year nine times. He’s won two Grammy awards. From a fan’s perspective, one of the remarkable things about Del is that in spite of his traditional bluegrass roots and his high lonesome vocals, he’s always been open to newer music. One of his most popular songs is Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning;” he’s shared the stage with the jam band Phish (in fact, Phish drummer Jon Fishman joined the band on stage). It’s unlikely you could find anyone in bluegrass that hasn’t been in the studio with him or shared the stage with Del at some point.
Contributing to the evening, in addition to Jon Fishman, were country star Dierks Bentley, songwriter Ronnie Bowman, mandolin masters Sam Bush and Sierra Hull, Jerry Douglas, and, to close out the set, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who also had recorded with Del. It was quite a night, and a beaming Del and the huge crowd enjoyed every minute of it. They managed to cover a lot of ground, from his classic “High on the Mountain,” a picker’s dream in this version of “Hotwire,” “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” and, just to keep everyone on their toes, a great version of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” with Dierks Bentley.
The tribute was a fitting end to the festival, that saw record crowds, near-perfect weather and spontaneous jams taking place in hotels, the Convention Center elevators, and in hotel rooms. Watch for a companion article about the rest of the conference to follow.