Review: This bluegrass collaboration truly was epic

CorrespondentSeptember 28, 2013 

— The theme of Friday night’s concert at Red Hat Amphitheater, “Wide Open Bluegrass,” signifies the intertwined roots and branches defining today’s bluegrass music.

There were an array of styles, from traditional to progressive, culminating in the “Epic Collaboration” featuring Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Mark Schatz and Jason Carter.

The collaborators were introduced as “seven living legends.” Indeed, they are.

Bush (mandolin), Fleck (banjo), Douglas (dobro), Rice (guitar) and McCoury (male vocalist) were among the first to win when IBMA began conferring awards in 1990.

Schatz earned the first of his two bassist of the year awards in 1994. On Thursday, Carter, fiddler for the Del McCoury Band, garnered the trophy for fiddler of the year.

Also Thursday, Rice was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame as one of the genre’s most innovative and imitated flat-picking guitarists.

Throughout their 90-minute, 16-song set, the band was relaxed and jovial as it drew extensively from the Bill Monroe song book.

“Roll on Buddy, Roll On” opened with Hall of Fame member McCoury singing lead, as he did as one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963.

Monroe’s “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” and “Heavy Traffic Ahead” led into North Carolina native Earl Scruggs’ “Nashville Blues,” featuring Fleck on 5-string banjo.

Taking solos, or “breaks,” each instrumentalist displayed the award-winning style that expanded and redefined the bluegrass music of the pioneers.

Rice, who thrilled the audience at Thursday’s awards show when he spoke publicly in his normal voice for the first time since developing dysphonia in the early 1990s, didn’t speak during the concert. But he valiantly fought through arthritic pain, coaxing his fingers into position during his breaks, delighting both his fellow pickers and the fans.

Douglas paid tribute to the late great dobroist Mike Auldridge with Auldridge’s “Rock Bottom.”

Bush honored the memory of Tar Heel legend Doc Watson with George Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” a song Bush and Doc performed together often.

And Fleck – the “Captain Kirk” of the 5-string - took the instrument where none had gone before with “Polka On the Banjo,” introduced by his New Grass Revival bandmate, with good-natured ribbing.

Voice problems forced Grammy-winning fiddler and vocalist Alison Krauss to cancel her participation in the Epic Collaboration. But Douglas told the crowd he and Alison had spoken. He assured that Alison was “OK,” and that we would hear her “sweet voice” once again. The good news was warmly received.

Beginning with Raleigh’s award-winning Grass Cats, the festival featured an array of acts including the Del McCoury Band and the Czech Republic’s Druha Trava (“Second Grass”) – exemplars of bluegrass music’s global reach.

The Punch Brothers drifted furthest from bluegrass traditionalism with jaw-dropping instrumental and compositional brilliance. While grounded in bluegrass, mandolinist Chris Thile, banjoist Noam Pikelny, fiddler Gabe Wicher, and company at times left Planet Bluegrass and soared into the nether reaches with an aural blast that could, conceivably, be labeled “Astrograss.”

Wide Open Bluegrass and the Epic Collaboration fulfilled expectations with a slate of musical approaches, affirming that the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and other pioneers is vibrant, diverse, and continually evolving as it branches outward and upward into the 21st century.

Bernhardt: jbernhardt@mindspring.com

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