RALEIGH — After tuning his instrument for a bit, the fiddle player leaned into the microphone to address the crowd.
Dont 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 well all be resting there
If youd 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 years 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 IBMAs business convention.
Along with nightly Bluegrass Ramble club showcases, theres 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 IBMAs 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, its 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 wasnt 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 Raleighs 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, theres nothing better.
Yall 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 Raleighs bullet points in luring IBMA here from Nashville, the conventions 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 its 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 youre looking to expose bluegrass music to potential new fans, its hard to think of a better way to do that than to put it out on the street and free in a festival atmosphere.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat