After spending the past week waiting to exhale, World of Bluegrass organizers were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief by Saturday. Despite all the weather travails and the deadline pressure of moving the outdoor Wide Open Bluegrass festival into the Raleigh Convention Center, the bottom line was: It worked.
Not perfectly, of course.
Without the outdoor good-weather throngs, this year’s total International Bluegrass Music Association festival attendance won’t match the record-breaking crowds of 2013 and 2014. But things were still quite cramped in the convention center’s hallways and concourses, which felt a lot like trying to negotiate the State Fair midway on a weekend. And the downstairs exhibit hall (where the ticketed Red Hat Amphitheater shows were moved) had more echo in the sound than you’d like.
Still, all things considered, everything went about as well as it possibly could have. World of Bluegrass wasn’t just salvaged; it turned out great.
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Doug Grissom, the Raleigh Convention Center’s assistant director, likened relocating seven stages and all the art, merchandise and food vendors inside to “trying to move 10 houses into your kitchen” – done overnight, no less.
“We really did not want to have to do this,” Grissom said. “Tuesday, I was still saying, ‘Guys! We do not cancel or postpone or even move until the weather hits!’ Then I looked at the forecast and, well …”
It’s worth noting that, even though the bad weather was unlucky, it still could have been a lot worse. Some early week forecast models called for Hurricane Joaquin to head straight at Raleigh, packing a foot of rain and high winds. Had that come to pass, with all the attendant power outages and structural damage, it might have been impossible for World of Bluegrass to carry on even indoors.
But the weather stayed just good enough not to create dangerous situations, and after two days of sleepless round-the-clock preparation, pretty much everything went off without a hitch. Friday and Saturday, shows were running on time. Food and arts vendors were doing brisk business. And with music everywhere, contentment seemed to be the order of the day.
“I think,” said former IBMA board chairman Jon Weisberger, “that they’ve pulled off something amazing here.”
Canvassing festivalgoers, it wasn’t hard to find people who actually preferred Wide Open Bluegrass this way. The silver lining to the bad weather’s dark cloud was that the close-in layout made it possible for festivalgoers to move between different stages a lot faster than on the far-flung outdoor grid.
“With the three side-by-side ballrooms and the main hall downstairs, I easily flitted around,” said Steve Eisenstadt of Raleigh. “I figure I caught 50 percent more acts this way. And unlike the street stages, the convention center rooms had chairs. I’m praying for rain every year.”
Friday night headliner Alison Krauss drew a sold-out crowd to the downstairs main stage, but the highlight of the week happened at the same time on one of the free stages in an upstairs ballroom. That’s where the Missouri band HillBenders presented their “bluegrass opry” version of The Who’s classic rock opera “Tommy,” and it was spectacular.
I saw this show back in March at South By Southwest, where it was excellent, even though the band mostly stood still looking a bit apprehensive as it played. Since then, the band has grown markedly more confident and dynamic in performing it – especially Dobroist Chad Graves, introduced during the encore as “the Keith Moon of the Dobro!”
While I could have done without the handful of between-song, spoken-word narration (which felt, well, a little mansplainy), the HillBenders’ performance was brilliant throughout, evoking the grandeur of the original while also putting a down-home spin on it. Enthusiastic audience singalongs on the closing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Can See For Miles” encore, complete with Jim Rea windmilling his acoustic guitar Pete Townshend-style, was just icing.
“I’m so glad IBMA is in North Carolina,” Rea said at the end. “Peace!”
By Saturday, adrenaline was waning enough for exhaustion to start overtaking the organizers. That especially went for Paul Schiminger, the new executive director of Nashville-based IBMA, who took over the job just four months ago.
There are always curveballs, and Hurricane Joaquin just happened to be a bigger one than usual. But the city of Raleigh was amazing, the way they made this happen.
Paul Schiminger, executive director, International Bluegrass Music Association
“It’s been fascinating to watch and be a part of, for sure,” Schiminger said of Wide Indoor Bluegrass. “There are always curveballs, and Hurricane Joaquin just happened to be a bigger one than usual. But the city of Raleigh was amazing, the way they made this happen.”
Attendance for the paid events – the IBMA business conference, “Bluegrass Ramble” nightclub shows, Memorial Auditorium awards show and two Red Hat/exhibit hall concerts – appeared to be in line with the past two years. Crowds appeared good for the free performances and trade show, but estimates and accounting for all that will take a bit longer to compile.
Still, that’s just business. The other side of IBMA is that it’s one of the most fun grass-roots musical experiences you could have, in large part because of the communal, participatory nature of the music.
One to remember
For example, Tuesday night I was standing in the Marriott Hotel lobby talking to Melody Walker, singer with Front Country (a young California band I followed around for a story two years ago). In the hotel’s business center nearby, a picking circle had formed and was playing and singing “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight,” an old Bill Monroe classic.
As soon as she recognized the song, Walker stopped talking midsentence and instinctively began to harmonize.
Wondering about my darling/I can still hear her saying goodbye...
She was singing loud enough to be a part of the picking circle’s sound, which no one thought was odd. Indeed, the players’ body language suggested they would’ve been more surprised if someone else hadn’t started singing.
“Hey,” Walker said with a shrug and a smile, “gotta get that tenor part in there.”
Given the potential elements it was up against, World of Bluegrass 2015 was going to be one to remember. Thanks to a lot of people’s hard work and overall audience affability, it turned out to be in a good way.