Bluegrass Raleigh

And now, the ‘World of Bluegrass’ takes to the streets

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 27, 2013 

  • If you go

    The exhibit hall is in the lower level of the Raleigh Convention Center downtown. It is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.

— After tuning his instrument for a bit, the fiddle player leaned into the microphone to address the crowd.

“Don’t try this at home,” said Johnny Ridge of the band Al Batten & The Bluegrass Reunion. “We are professionals.”

Which was funny, since the band had just summoned a friend in the crowd to come onstage and sing with them. They harmonized on an old spiritual that looked to the unknown territory beyond this mortal coil.

“Walking through a country graveyard/Soon we’ll all be resting there …”

If you’d closed your eyes and just listened, you might have thought you were near a campfire at a bluegrass festival somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains.

But this was on Martin Street in the shadow of the PNC Building in downtown Raleigh as part of “Wide Open Bluegrass,” the outdoor portion of this year’s “World of Bluegrass” festival.

The International Bluegrass Music Association moved its annual shindig to Raleigh for the first time this year, and it got underway Tuesday with IBMA’s business convention.

Along with nightly “Bluegrass Ramble” club showcases, there’s been an exhibition hall, awards show and big sold-out concerts at Red Hat Amphitheater.

But the biggest puzzle piece of all is this huge free street festival, which brings the IBMA’s music and events out into the open, literally. It opened Friday afternoon and continues Saturday.

Downtown is alive

While wading through thick crowds of people watching bluegrass pickers on multiple stages between the Capitol and convention center Friday, I had a thought: Maybe the city had the right idea when it closed Fayetteville Street and turned it into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s.

Right idea, wrong time. Little development followed the mall, which was deserted after dark and derided as a blight for most of its three decades. It was finally reopened to traffic in 2006.

Seven years later, however, it’s undeniable that downtown Raleigh is most alive when Fayetteville is closed to traffic for festivals. Between SPARKcon, the Ray Price Capital City Bike Fest and other downtown events, it seems to happen several times a month in the spring, summer and fall.

Now we have Wide Open Bluegrass, with scores of bluegrass acts both obscure and well-known playing five stages. Friday wasn’t too different a scene from any other downtown street fair. Music was wafting through the air, along with the smell of fried food as people perused art and souvenirs in the booths lining Fayetteville Street.

This is turning out to be downtown Raleigh’s secret weapon: We do outdoor music and art festivals very, very well. And when the weather cooperates as it did Friday afternoon, with sunny skies and fair temperatures, there’s nothing better.

“Y’all did a great job with the weather,” Nancy Cardwell, executive director of IBMA, said Friday, laughing. “We appreciate that.”

Exposure to new fans

This street-festival capacity was just one of Raleigh’s bullet points in luring IBMA here from Nashville, the convention’s home for the previous eight years. It might turn out to be the most important element of all, and not just because it will be how most local residents participate.

Niche genres like bluegrass are always struggling to survive and revitalize – especially those that have an older fan base.

But with bands like Mumford & Sons taking banjos onto the charts, bluegrass is as close to the mainstream as it’s been in years.

Outreach is a big part of events like “World of Bluegrass.” But winning over new fans was next to impossible when IBMA had its festival in Nashville, where almost all its events happened behind closed doors in the convention center.

If you’re looking to expose bluegrass music to potential new fans, it’s hard to think of a better way to do that than to put it out on the street and free in a festival atmosphere.

Y’all come.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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