Music News & Reviews

River of live bluegrass flows through Raleigh

In its final day Saturday, the International Bluegrass Music Association trade show/festival wrapped up four days of pouring live bluegrass and related music from free stages, indoor showcases, the Red Hat amphitheater and countless picking sessions in hotel corridors, street corners, barrooms and elsewhere.

In an era when people tend to “access” their music from smartphones, this great river of live music is a thing to relish. Among the Friday moments that linger:

• Mike Compton and Raleigh’s own Joe Newberry held forth on Davie Street to a receeptive audience.

“We’ll do one from Mr. Monroe,” said Newberry, the guitarist and singer. “We’ll do the ‘Kentucky Waltz.’”

In this setting, there was no need to explain that “Mr. Monroe” referred to Bill Monroe, the Kentucky mandolinist and singer-songwriter who in the 1940s brought together the music now called bluegrass.

Between Compton’s free-roaming mandolin and Newberry’s strong vocals, the duo paid appropriate tribute to Monroe’s 1945 hit without attempting a note-for-note take.

• The powerful, George Jones-style vocals of Dave Adkins curled across City Plaza just about sundown as he and partner Edgar Loudermilk entertained a capacity crowd on Fayetteville Street. With the massively bearded Curtis (Bum) Bumgarner taking on banjo duties, the relatively new act capably combined bluegrass and hard country.

• Mandolinist Sam Bush kicked off an all-star show with “Silence or Tears,” a bluegrass tune with an unusual provenance. The song puts words by Lord Byron to a ‘grassy melody, and it brought back the heyday of the Country Gentlemen and other creative “second-generation” bluegrass acts.

Bush served as the irreverent frontman for a seriously talented gang of players: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on resonator guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on bass and Bryan Sutton on guitar. They lost a few crowd members during their set, perhaps those exhausted by days and nights of virtually continuous picking.

But the all-star group successfully took on everything from bluegrass chestnuts such as “The Sunny Side of the Mountain” to the ambitious “Texas Red,” written by Fleck and Bush in the “new-acoustic” band Strength in Numbers.

In addition to performing and recording with a laundry list of musical titans, most of these gentleman have played in various ad-hoc combinations at Nashville’s bluegrass haven, the Station Inn. And they brought an easy-going virtuosity to Raleigh, delivered with the same spirit of ensemble excellence that characterized those decades of gigs.

• The reunited Hot Rize featured melodic, graceful tunes from its new CD, “When I’m Free,” instead of relying on earlier hits that might have garnered a larger reaction from the Red Hat crowd. The band’s new tour includes North Carolinian Sutton as guitarist and vocalist, and he did draw a major response with his gospel composition “I Am the Road.”

“We hope that North Carolinians are happy to be represented in Hot Rize,” banjo man Pete Wernick said, referring to the band’s Colorado origins.

New band compositions such as “Come Away” and “You Were on My Mind” showed the care and high standards songwriters Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster put into redrafting the Hot Rize approach for a new generation. The band broke up in 1990, although they have performed in periodic reunions.

• Bluegrass announcer Cindy Baucom summed it up:

“Downtown Raleigh is jammin’ tonight!” Baucom said to the Red Hat crowd. “This is Friday night under the lights.”

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