RALEIGH — Several songs into Front Countrys set, guitarist/bandleader Jacob Groopman paused to take a breath.
We flew all night last night, he told the crowd Tuesday night at the downtown nightclub Tir Na Nog. So were a little slow. Just a little. But in a good way.
Groopmans bandmates smiled; they were all just as weary. But they sounded plenty energetic on the next song, an ace cover of Bruce Hornsbys 1986 hit The Way It Is, which transposed to bluegrass almost perfectly, with Luke Abbott playing the signature hook on banjo.
Like lots of people at the International Bluegrass Music Associations World of Bluegrass shindig, Front Country is working hard this week.
The Bay Area bands IBMA odyssey began late Monday night at San Francisco Airport. An all-night flight and connection through Atlanta later, they touched down at Raleigh-Durham International Airport shortly before noon Tuesday.
Seven hours later, Front Country was onstage at Tir Na Nog for the first of two shows Tuesday night as part of the IBMAs multiclub Bluegrass Ramble. The band also planned to play Wednesday night at the California Bluegrass Associations Jamming Floor suite at the downtown Marriott Hotel, and Thursday at the Pour House. But first, all six musicians had to power through Tuesdays travel-and-doubleheader-performance marathon with no sleep besides a few naps.
It helped that everyone was excited. While various members have played North Carolina before with different groups, this is Front Countrys first time at IBMA or playing anywhere east of the Mountain Time Zone. Coming to IBMA represents a big investment, starting with six plane tickets and two hotel rooms.
Weve got to make it worth our while, fiddler Leif Karlstrom said. But it will be. Its too exciting for us to be exhausted. Were psyched to be here.
Trying to make a splash
While Steve Martin, Punch Brothers, Del McCoury and other big-name headliners are IBMAs public drawing card, bands like Front Country are the bulk of the festival. Since forming in 2011, the group has had some success in contests, winning this years Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest. But the group is only now starting to tour.
Playing IBMA means there might be booking agents, managers or radio deejays in the audience. So upstart bands like Front Country try to play as many times as possible.
Bands are coming to town trying to make as much of a splash as possible not just with fans, but with industry, said Ben Surratt, an IBMA board member who helped book the acts for this years festival.
IBMAs move to Raleigh created new possibilities for showcases, which were previously confined to Nashvilles convention center. Raleighs concentration of downtown venues allows IBMA to open the festival up to more acts, from last years 18 to this years 33, all playing multiple times.
One act keeping a particularly hectic schedule during IBMA is Kruger Brothers, a North Wilkesboro trio featuring newly minted Steve Martin Prize winner Jens Kruger. On Thursday, the band is in New York City taping a performance with Martin for CBSs Late Show With David Letterman. By the time that airs Friday night, the Krugers will be back in Raleigh in the midst of four performances in two days (on top of a banjo workshop).
Pops and cracks
After finishing at Tir Na Nog, Front Countrys members hoofed their gear offstage and briefly paused. Immediately after shows is for networking and merchandise sales. Just like clockwork, they connected with two bluegrass deejays to talk about airplay and interviews; and they sold a couple of compact discs to new fans.
Youre like country before it got all poppy, one of the CD buyers told singer/guitarist Melody Walker.
You could say that, Walker said, smiling. Afterward, she appeared to flag a bit.
The flight was not as bad as it couldve been, Walker said. I had a few pops and cracks in my voice. Whenever I get less than eight hours sleep, my voice will do something thats not good. Next set might be rough.
Karlstrom, mandolin player Adam Roszkiewicz and bassist Zack Sharpe set off on foot to make the five-block walk over to the Convention Center, Sharpe carrying his bass without a case. Front Countrys other three members took a cab (Walkers feet were hurting, thanks to new boots).
The chatter en route was typical post-gig talk, about songs that worked and songs that didnt, and favorite libations (Karlstrom talked up the pickleback, a mixture of whiskey and pickle brine). Fatigue was setting in for most of them, but not Sharpe.
Nyquil made the flight fine for me, he said. Couldnt talk anybody else into it.
Where Tir Na Nog was a full house with a nice vibe, the Convention Centers plush and cavernous ballroom was almost deserted. Walking in, Front Countrys members couldnt help laughing. Traveling long distances to play for almost no one is a time-honored music-business tradition. Nothing for it but to soldier on.
Its gonna be awesome, Karlstrom said, tuning his fiddle backstage. Theres a certain ridiculousness to these things. But you still have to give it every time, no matter what.
Thanks to the ballrooms acoustics and dramatic amount of reverb (which Walker said made it the most epic gig weve ever played), Front Countrys nightcap sounded better than the Tir Na Nog set. Alas, there were only about 20 people in the room listening.
By the time Front Country finished shortly before 10 p.m., almost 19 hours had passed since theyd left San Francisco. But they werent done; there were bands to see at the California Bluegrass Associations hotel suite, and later at the Pour House. Sleep could wait.
I love things like this, popping around, Groopman said. Every hour, theres something to see. You get to one place where youve had enough beer, and you just keep going.
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