Friday, October 10, 2014

IBMA World of Bluegrass 2014 - Wide Open Bluegrass: Review

The Teeming Crowd on Fayetteville Street

The Red Hat Amphitheater

Two images dominate the Wide Open Bluegrass festival at IBMA on Friday and Saturday as the Business Conference and the Awards Show give way to a free street festival featuring many of the bands seen during World of Bluegrass in showcases and on the Awards Show stage as well. There's also a ticketed portion featuring major bands in both indoor and outdoor settings with nine stages, each featuring both national and regional bands. Wide Open Bluegrass is an outgrowth of what used to be known as IBMA Fan Fest at earlier World of Bluegrass events, now sponsored by IBMA and Raleigh's Local Organizing Committee together. Proceeds from Wide Open Bluegrass go to support the Bluegrass Trust Fund, a non-profit organization helping bluegrass professionals in times of need. Last year's success helped IBMA to work itself out of a financial hole dug by the recession of the last six years and the lack of interest shown IBMA by powers-that-be in Nashville. The enthusiastic support and organizational force growing from the often overlapping political, business, and music communities in Raleigh has served to lift the profile of IBMA and its financial position. The question remains, however, how raising the financial and artistic profile of IBMA will serve to increase the enthusiasm of professional musicians to become active members and supporters of their professional organization.

Let's take an impressionistic look at the activities surrounding Friday and Saturday at Wide Open Bluegrass:

The Exhibit Hall

The Exhibit Hall, open to the trade only for three days was thrown open to the general public as part of Wide Open Bluegrass. Instrument Makers, gear manufacturers, bands, writers, festivals, and more have paid for booths to spread the word about their products and to sell their wares and explain their services. All the instruments were available to demo, and small jams broke out spontaneously as a range of people, casual pickers to touring musicians, tried out new instruments or stopped to jam. Sponsored, highly recognizable pros spent time at the booths of instrument makers sponsoring them, leading to many opportunities to interact and pick with them.

The Big Picture of the Exhibit Hall

Tony Williamson of Mandolin Central 

Leadership Bluegrass

NS Design

Emory Lester & Jonah Horton

Flatt Lonesome (Emerging Artist of the Year)

One of the perks of showcasing at IBMA is having a booth in the Exhibit Hall included as part of the showcase fee,presenting an opportunity to interact with the hundreds of fans, talent buyers, dj's and other industry professionals circulating through. The Exhibit Hall is free to the public during Wide Open Bluegrass.

Ticketed Venues
The Raleigh Convention Center Ballroom

The Ballroom on the top floor of the Raleigh Convention Center (RCC) provides a large stage in a quiet place for band performance. From showcasing new bands to well known touring bands, high profile super bands, and the debut of a new concerto for banjo and string quartet, the ballroom provided an easily accessible ideal space with plenty of room for large crowds of fans. 

Special Consensus

Greg Cahill founded Special Consensus nearly forty years ago, and has been a successful touring band all these years without ever having won an IBMA award. This year the band won two awards. Meanwhile, over the years, Cahill has been a contributor to bluegrass as an educator, former chairman of the IBMA Board, and many other quiet but important roles helping keep bluegrass music before the public. He deserves all the recognition he gets and more.

Greg Cahill

The Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson, too, has been in bluegrass music with classic early bluegrass bands and for over twenty years with his own band. He has mentored young, up-and-coming pickers and added great veterans to his bands through the years. Meanwhile his fine tenor voice and love for gospel music has set high standards of musical performance while his demeanor is always classy and professional. His commitment to traditional bluegrass sounds and forms is unshakeable.

Larry Stephenson

The Earls of Leicester

Irene and I have been listening to the Earls of Leicester CD in our truck for several weeks, marveling at the almost eerie similarity to Flatt & Scruggs classic lineup which toured from 1954 - 1965. My concern was whether this band is a tribute band, a cover band, or an imitation band. One extremely knowledgeable bluegrass performer, writer, and administrator I asked about this concern responded that he thought "all of the above and none of the above." He remarked that the powerhouse band with a core group of music stars whose influence extends beyond bluegrass (Jerry Douglas, Tim O'Brien, and Shawn Camp) had the potential to do for Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys (and bluegrass music) what The Bluegrass Album Band had accomplished in the eighties, when they revived classic bluegrass sounds with the addition of Tony Rice introducing a new kind of flat picking that had not existed in early bluegrass bands. Other members of the band are Johnny Warren, Charlie Cushman, and Barry Bales.The impact of their sound and their remarkable sound-alike quality to Flatt & Scruggs augmented by contemporary sound technology was mind bending, as were Shawn Camp's Flatt-like demeanor, chatter, and singing. Watch for this band and buy the CD from Rounder. 

Tim O'Brien, Barry Bales, Shawn Camp

Jerry Douglas

The Ballroom

The Red Hat Amphitheater
Balsam Range

Balsam Range, which captured Entertainer of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year as well as Buddy Melton's award as Male Vocalist of the Year had an early afternoon show at the Red Hat Amphitheater. A combination of highly popular bluegrass bands and special jams designed for one-off performances appeared at the ticketed Red Hat Amphitheater. I was sad not to see the Yonder Mountain String Band, which had received a less than luke warm reception at Fan Fest in Nashville some years ago, perform to a nearly sold-out crowd late on Saturday afternoon, but by that time the weather had turned cold and weariness had caught up with me, so I never got to the Red Hat on Saturday, even with Del McCoury  followed by Ricky Skaggs with Bruce Hornsby closing the night. The following pictures provide a sense of the venue, a fine outdoor amphitheater designed for rock shows and modern country music. The sound is fine, the seats fairly comfortable, and the venue an excellent one as long as it doesn't rain. For the second year, we avoided rain, although it threatened on Friday, and along with the chill on Saturday, probably reduced attendance. 

Buddy Melton - Male Vocalist of the Year
Balsam Range

Tim Surrett - Mentor of the Year
Balsam Range

Balsam Range

The Gibson Brothers

All-Star Jam

Audiences love these all-star jams (Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton) composed off great musicians who don't normally perform together. They're always a thrill, but should not be mistaken for a polished band, because their busy schedules and other projects prohibit extensive rehearsal. Nevertheless, they are always a popular with fans.

Bela Fleck

Bryan Sutton

Edgar Meyer & Sam Bush

On the Jumbotron

The Street Fair

On my way to a breakfast meeting on Friday morning, I walked through the Plaza and saw what would become the Plaza Stage just being readied to set up as the main stage for the Wide Open Bluegrass street festival. In just a few hours the six stages, where bands would be performing from noon until 11:00 PM for the next two days, would be set up. Arts, crafts, and food vendors along with rides for kids would be erected and prepared for over 100,000 people to come out to enjoy the fun. It's a remarkable transition to watch and enjoy. I tried to imagine Nashville closing Broadway for six blocks devoted to bluegrass music accompanied by all the activities that would attract a bluegrass interested crowd. Couldn't summon up the picture even in my imagination. The other stages were set up at the ends of side streets, making convenient places for folks to wander by while others came, set up lawn chairs, and stayed to listen or moved on to over venues. It was an exciting two days I'll try to collapse and capture.

The Line Leading Into Ticket Exchange 
and Purchase for Wide Open Tickets on
Friday Morning

A Few Hours Later - The View Down Fayetteville Street

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
On the City Plaza Stage

The City Plaza Stage, just outside the Sheraton Hotel, was the major outdoor performance venue for the Street Fair. Someone once said,  "Just because it's free, doesn't mean it doesn't cost anything." This stage was supported by major donations from Raleigh businesses as well as a personal donation of $35,000 by Mayor Nancy McFarlane and her husband to as little publicity as possible. The Plaza was jammed with fans for two solid days.

Frank Sollivan & Dirty Kitchen

Frank Sollivan's band is a major rising band. Frank's more informal house concerts often feature his own gourmet cooking, a double treat. Winner of and IBMA award as Instrumental Group of the Year, they've come a long way in the past couple of years.

Frank Sollivan

Chris Luquette

Prepared for a Family Day on Fayettville

Children's Fun Area

Picea Studios Booth

I came across Sally Mullikin's print shop as I rambled down Fayetteville Street and thought her block prints were both attractive and effectively communicated a bluegrass theme. Click on the link above to order or to see more of her work. It captures much of what appeals in bluegrass in a new and fresh way.

Two Woodcuts for Block Prints

Sally Mullikin - Artist

Connie Corringer with Carolina Catbirds

All it takes is a good caller and willing dancer/learners. Looked like good fun.

Looking Toward Duke Energy Center from Dance Stage

Now That's a Fruit Cocktail...and Not Fried

Hargett Street Stage for the Malpass Brothers

The Malpass Brothers are not a bluegrass band, but a quite popular classic country band,  going beyond covering these many famed voices to very familiar sound alikes. They've had strong support in the bluegrass community, which likes its country music coming to them from forty or fifty years ago.

The Malpass Brothers

Guitar License Plate Art

Here's a different form of art, using license plates to create interesting and creative guitar designs. You can find them at Peter Geiger Art. Check his work out.

Peter Geiger

Cornhole Game

High Lonesome Strings - A North Carolina Institutions

Clay Hess on the Plaza Stage

Kids on Bluegrass

The light was really quite bad in the mid-afternoon when kids on bluegrass took place. Don't have much from there. Sorry!

Jamming and Jam Instruction
Pete Wernick (Dr. Banjo) Conducts Jam Class

Pete Wernick is a noted bluegrass educator who, through his jam camps, band camps, and banjo camps, has spread the gospel of learning through ear training far and wide. He has begun certifying instructors to teach his method, spreading it still further. At Wide Open Bluegrass, he and his certified instructor Gilbert Nelson conducted two two hour sessions introducing people to the approach. Irene and I have attended a lot of jam camps. She helps out facilitating jam groups, while I just stumbled along. I'll be attending Jam Camp for the first time on the guitar at Gettysburg this Spring after years of futile fumbling on the banjo.

Jam Groups in the Hallway

Gilbert Nelson Conducting Saturday's Jam Class

Many people in these groups are playing his or her instrument with others for the first time. It's really fun and fulfilling. Give it a try at a jam camp near you. Check out Pete's web site to find one.

Irene with Her Group

Bands Visited the Youth Program
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out Jam with the Kids

There's Jamming Everywhere

Jams are everywhere, all the time - in the RCC, the hotels, on the streets, and more. Unfortunately, most of the action takes place long after Irene and I have returned to our trailer over at the State Fair Campground. We miss the late night, or even all night jams which keep people from getting to 9:00 AM meetings, among other things. Here's a small sample, though:

That's about it for this year. IBMA and its annual conference, The World of Bluegrass, are still a work in progress and will remain so. There's plenty to criticize about what needs changing or tweaking, but there's an excellent discussion list for members where some of that is going on. Plenty of people take cheap shots at IBMA to meet their own needs. I will continue to contribute to the ongoing and largely positive discussion on internet forums which, I trust, are being listened to by both the Board of Directors and IBMA staff. There's good stuff going on, and you can be a part of contributing to making it better by joining as a grass roots or professional member. See you next year, on line, or at a festival.