Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wide Open Bluegrass 2016 - Review

Little Known Fact: Sir Walter Raleigh Loved the Banjo

If you were to attend only the free Street Fair portion of IBMA's Wide Open Bluegrass, presented by PNC, without purchasing tickets to the two days of all-star performances in the Red Hat Amphitheater, you could attend what would be the best bluegrass festival you ever participated in. Add the Red Hat, various workshops,as well as the Expo Hall and you're in heaven. The World of Bluegrass, from Tuesday through Thursday, maintained a sober, instructional, showcasing tenor, while still being loads of fun and entertainment. Wide Open Bluegrass presented more fun to the tens of thousands of people who swarmed into town, while continuing to provide education and information. Taken together, there could hardly be a more satisfying bluegrass experience anywhere.

Note: I won't be covering the three Awards shows, Momentum Awards, Special Awards, and the Annual big ticket Awards Show as they've been fully covered elsewhere, and my photo quality is indadequate. Frank Baker's fine portfolio can be found in Bluegrass Today, also.

The Setup
The Plaza Stage

Looking Towards the State Capital

Vendors Load-In

During the night between the close of the Business Conference with the Awards Show and the opening of Wide Open Bluegrass at 10:00 AM on Friday morning, a miracle takes place. The roughly seven tenths of a mile between the Duke Energy Center at the head of Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, and the State Capital at the other end, is closed to vehicular traffic, seven stages are placed in side streets or on the main thoroughfare, dozens of vendor tents are installed, and vendor food trucks line the street. Some of the stages have a particular emphasis, especially the Youth Stage, featuring young bands and IBMA's own selected group of hot young pickers known as Kids on Bluegrass. Another stage features the musicians of a regional bluegrass society known at the "High Lonesome Strings." From the City Plaza Stage, sponsored by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and her husband Ron, at one end, featuring first rate, high profile bands, to the Capital Stage, sponsored by Chiesi, Big Boss, and WNCN, seven tenths of a mile away, eight bands a day play. On a typical day, at a bluegrass festival, five bands a day play two 50 minute sets each.

Fayetteville Street Towards the Duke Energy Center

Pete Wernick's Jam Class

Pete Wernick, known as Dr. Banjo, was a founder of the band Hot Rize, currently on a perpetual reunion tour, and served as the first elected and longtime longtime President of IBMA. His great contribution has been to recognize the importance of jamming to bluegrass and to institutionalize the teaching of it, first to his own Jam classes and now to "certified" Wernick style teachers in the U.S. and abroad. He sponsored two well-attended demonstration and practice jam classes in the lobby of the Raleigh Convention Center (RCC) on Friday and Saturday mornings. While expert jams were to be found all over the place during IBMA, chances for beginners to gain a rudimentary understanding of the importance and process of jamming were few. These morning groups gave them the best chance available. 

Novice Jam Group

Irene Facilitating a Small Jam

Pete Working with Group

College Programs
Massed College Bands at Workshop Stage

A quietly important emphasis of Wide Open Bluegrass emerged as college bands performed at Booths in the Expo Hall, on the Youth Stage, and at an introductory set of performances on the Workshop Stage. East Tennessee State University, Morehead State University, Dennison University, and Berklee College of Music traditional, roots and bluegrass degree programs were emphasized as their show bands performed. One element I found distracting was the seeming insistence of program directors and faculty members to perform with their bands. Nevertheless, formal academic programs in traditional music continue to grow and attract students in colleges and universities. The number of clubs and the degree to which introductory music courses emphasize these approaches in probably unknown and under-recognized. 

The Price Sisters from Moorehead State

The ETSU Pride Band
Aynesly Porchak

Aaron Foster

Troy Boone

Brady Wallen

Max Ettling

Mile Twelve - Representing Berklee 
and Other Northeastern Colleges & Conservatories

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes

Nate Sabat

Evan Murphy

BB Bowness

Dennison University

A Walk Down Fayettville Street
The Zolla Boys on the Youth Stage

Steve Gully & New Pinnacle
on Plaza Stage

The Plaza Stage is one of the Larger and More Popular Stages
Located in Front of the Sheraton

Danny Paisley & Southern Grass
on the Davie Street Stage

Danny Paisley - IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year

Danny Paisley's choice as Male Vocalist of the Year was widely popular. He has been a singer in his late father's band which Danny took over on Bob's passing. Danny's voice is an acquired taste for many, but those who say contemporary bluegrass lacks soul haven't listened to him or thought about his power and depth of feeling. 

Davie Street Crowd

Vendors Along Fayetteville Street
Looking Toward the Capital

The Yellow Flag Indicates North Carolina Products
at the Vendor Booths

Are They Flying Pigs?

So Many Barbecue Sauce Vendors

Lonesome Pine Stage

The Boone Experiences Acitivity Area
Rock Slide

Sluicing for "Precious" Stones

Fayetteville Street with State Capital

Art Vendors

Craft Vendors

Collectible Posters

Food Vendors
Pineapple Lemonade

The Capital Stage 

The Molly Tuttle Band at the Capital Stage

Molly Tuttle, a Californian who recently completed studies at Berklee College of Music impressed me in each of her performances as a first rate flat picker, singer, and band leader. She has an electric charm to go with her obvious musical skills. Keep an eye on her progress. 

 Molly Tuttle

Looking Up Fayettville Street Towards Duke Energy Center

The Malpass Brothers at Hargett Street

The Malpass Brothers are a plugged in Country band who have had wide acceptance in the bluegrass community for their covers of country music from the late fifties through the eighties. Their singing sounds and feels much like the singers they cover, much to the pleasure of their audience. Christopher and Taylor Malpass delightful personalities and a strong band. Fiddler Johnny Ridge, well-loved in North Carolina, is one of the best. 

Merch for the Larry Stephenson Band 
on Davie Street

In the Expo Hall

You Never Know Who You'll Find Picking There
Clay Hess and Friends

Clay Hess & Irl Hees

Michael Cleveland, Bobby Hicks & Dan Boner

John McEuen & the Kruger Brothers

The Red Hat Amphitheater

The Earls of Leicester

The Earls of Leicester were named Entertainer of the Year for the second consecutive year. The band earned this second recognition, not only because they're truly wonderful as a first-rate cover band, but because each member is superb at what he does. This is testified to by instrumentalist winds for Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Barry Bales (Bass) and Charlie Cushman (Banjo). Their selection may also represents a statement for traditionalism by the voting membership. 

Jerry Douglas

Johnny Warren

Barry Bales

Jeff White & Shawn Camp

Johnny Warren, Shawn Camp & Jerry Douglas

Shawn Camp & Jerry Douglas

Charlie Cushman

 The Glimmer Wall - Back of the RCC

Earls of Leicester Signing

Red Hat Ampitheater

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Ricky Skaggs

Jake Workman
Momentum Instrumentalist

Andy Leftwich

Russell Carson

Paul Brewster

Scott Mulvahill

Eddie Farris

 Ricky Skaggs

Glimmer Wall City-Scape

Alan Bibey & Grasstowne at Davie Street

This may be the best band Alan Bibey has had. With the addition of two fine female instrumentalists/singers, he's filled the band with quality and versatility. Greg Luck is always steady on fiddle or guitar as well as being an additional fine singer. Zack McLamb plays a fine bass. 

Alan Bibey

Gina Britt

Zack McLamb

Courtney Rohrer

Greg Luck

Nighttime on the Street


On Saturday I spent most of my day in the Red Hat Amphitheater, where the shows were longer and there were fewer of them than along the street. A six thousand seat open air space, the Red Hat hosts large headline events year round. While more used to rock bands and country acts, the sound delivered for bluegrass in this venue was fine, and many of the top bands from traditional to cutting edge and orchestral appeared on this day. A true feast for the ears and eyes. 

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Celebrating twenty-five years on the road, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out has been one of the most awarded and popular bands in bluegrass all that time. The band features traditional and more contemporary music presented with Russell's fine tenor voice, five time IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. This is one of the top touring and recording bands in bluegrass.

Russell Moore

Keith McKinnon

Justin Haynes 

Wayne Benson

Jerry Cole

Russell Moore

The Useful JumboTron

Mike Compton - Mandolin Workshop

As the foremost interpreter of Monroe-style mandolin, Mike Compton can happily inhabit a workshop stage all by himself, while both educating and entertaining. A master of the instrument. 

Championship Barbecue

The Championship Barbecue, for the benefit of local food pantries is the the result of the Whole Hog State Barbecue Championship taking place simultaneously with Wide Open Bluegrass. To support their effort, I stopped at the booth for a barbecue, but found that the single vinegar sauce provided made it essentially inedible for me. It would seem, that with the number of NC barbecue purveyors selling their wares just down the street, it would not be hard to boost sales by partnering with the vendors' efforts. 

John Cowan with the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band

John Cowan, the renowned lead singer for The Newgrass Revival and currently touring on Bass and Vocals with the Doobie Brothers has also been on a limited, and quite successful, tour with the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band. Cowan's strong tenor voice requires equal strength in harmony, which Brooke provides in spades. The combination has a special chemistry which quickly emerges in performance. This was the second time I had seen this show, which creates magic for listeners singing material from New Grass Revival, Darin & Brooke's catalog and recent release, and new songs by John. Don't miss this show if it comes to a venue near you!

John Cowan

Darin Aldridge

Brooke Aldridge

Matt Menafee

Carlie Arrowood

Brooke Aldridge

Brooke, John & Darin

Brian Smith

Audience from the Adjacent Parking Deck

The Real Audience

The Kruger Brothers - Spirit of the Rockies 

Jens Kruger is acknowledged as one of the finest banjo players in the world as well as a composer for the banjo of rare skill and sensitivity. He has been named a winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, but has never been recognized by IBMA as Banjo Player of the Year. With Spirit of the Rockies to add to his earlier orchestral pieces, Kruger has positioned himself as a first-rate composer of American music for bluegrass trio and orchestra. Performing at Wide Open Bluegrass with a sixteen piece symphony orchestra with a conductor. The results were magic, with two standing ovations, and general deep appreciation. Later, Kruger's stayed to sign autographs for over an hour. We own the CD, which held a place of honor for our listening for several days. Its lush beauty and effective ennobling of the banjo as a serious instrument for all ears is beyond compare. 

Uwe Kruger

Joel Landsberg

The Conductor - Cornelia Laemmli Orth

The String Section

The Brass Section

Jens Kruger and Joel Landsberg

The Audience

The transition from the romantic adventure of the Kruger Brother's orchestral suite to the rock infused, plugged in acoustic wildness of Greensky Bluegrass was jarring to say the least. While neither band could be accused of being a bluegrass band, however, both are strongly influenced by and will have their influence upon what we listen to in the future. They both belong within the arms of IBMA, and I leave it to listeners and future tastes to determine which sound and structure will last longer.

Greensky Bluegrass

Here's the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on Greensky Bluegrass: Greensky Bluegrass is a five-piece American bluegrass band founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2000. But this one sentence description hardly does justice to this ground and rule breaking rock band masquerading as a bluegrass band. Or is it a bluegrass band in transition? During their performance at the Red Hat Amphitheater, band spokesman Michael Bont, spoke of playing material from their new recording which represented a change of direction. I'm not familiar enough with their body of work to tell. I do know that what I heard was loud, generally lacking in melody, and not to my taste. It also had lyrics and structure that suggested maintaining the song format with the jam. Earlier material I had listened to suggested a stronger bluegrass leaning with rock influences, not unlike many other contemporary bluegrass bands. We didn't stay for the entire performance, which was ear-splittingly loud. 

Michael Arlen Bont

Anders Beck

Dave Devol

Dave  Bruzza

Paul Hoffman

Since we had seen the Steep Canyon Rangers three times already this year, enjoying each show, and also seen The Del McCoury Band in much more intimate shows at Jenny Brook and Podunk, we decided to return to the street to see what else was happening. 

At the Youth Stage
Kitsy, Nancy & Katy

Dennison University Band

Katy Daley Introduces Mile Twelve

...And So Home to Our Trailer

This year's Wide Open Bluegrass early established itself as a first-rate weekend celebration of bluegrass music in an urban setting. The music ranged from ultra traditional to wildly edgy, from string band to symphony orchestra, with enough option so that if one band didn't suit your taste, it was certain the next one would, or you could move to another venue that suited tastes and comfort better. The weather remained perfect! Fayetteville Street provided a venue where tens of thousands of people could be entertained by dozens of bands. Activities in the Raleigh Convention Center provided workshops, the Expo Hall, jamming instruction, and endless opportunities to socialize and jam. The Red Hat Amphitheater remained busy from noon to late evening with top attractions all day long. 

Next Year's Dates: September 26 - September 30  Mark it Down!