In its second year in Raleigh, World of Bluegrass didn’t have any celebrities as prominent as last year’s big headliner, banjo-playing comedian Steve Martin. But Friday night brought the next best thing to Red Hat Amphitheater – Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a wise-cracking banjo-playing couple.
Along with lots of funny marital banter, such as likening gender differences to the divide between old-time music and flashier “newgrass,” they played a lovely and exotic set that had a perfect moment of improvisational synchrony. A freight train came blaring past Red Hat while Fleck was in the middle of a solo, which he mutated into a nifty imitation of that train – shrugging modestly at the crowd’s cheers.
It was a reminder that the music was the star.
Similar reminders were across the street in the Raleigh Convention Center, where picking circles were going on in every nook, cranny and corner. Not long after Fleck’s train solo, former Bill Monroe/Ricky Skaggs fiddler Bobby Hicks sat playing with a pickup trio at a trade-show booth.
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They started in on the old Bob Wills standard “Faded Love,” which was lovely and became even lovelier when a woman observer began to sing along in a strong, clear voice. All over downtown – in the Convention Center and hotels and around the half-dozen stages set up along Fayetteville Street – that urge to join in was palpable, especially during the weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass.
Final attendance figures won’t be tallied for several weeks, and it’s true that the numbers for a few shows were slightly off this year compared with last. Thursday’s IBMA Awards show didn’t quite sell out, nor did one of the two shows at the 6,000-capacity Red Hat.
But based on the throngs of people who made Fayetteville Street look like a weekend crowd on the N.C. State Fair midway, this year’s overall figure ought to eclipse the 140,000-plus people that the 2013 World of Bluegrass drew to Raleigh.
They came from all over this year, too.
“We had two people from New Zealand who were here for bluegrass come in,” said Shawn Brewster of the Mahler Gallery. “A few from Switzerland, too. It’s not like it’s had a major impact on the gallery’s business, but it’s great to have it here.”
An up-close affair
World of Bluegrass is sort of the Stanley Cup of music festivals, in that both are highly hands-on. If you root for a football team that wins a Super Bowl, you’ll be lucky if you ever get within a hundred yards of the trophy. But if your hometown team wins hockey’s Stanley Cup, the trophy itself is something the public is allowed to see up close and even touch until it moves on to the following year’s winning city.
Bluegrass is an equally up-close affair. There are other very fine music festivals in Raleigh, including the alternative-slanted Hopscotch. But other festivals just didn’t have the same level of public participation as World of Bluegrass, where every third person you saw was carrying an instrument and looking to jam.
On Saturday afternoon, an old-school bluegrass group called Never Too Late was playing under a tent in front of the old Wake County courthouse on Fayetteville Street. As they ran through a Doyle Lawson tune, a handful of small children jumped and danced about.
“There’s another generation of fans right there,” quipped Never Too Late’s bassist.
Nearby, just out of earshot from Never Too Late, a small jam was going on; a young girl playing mandolin with players who looked old enough to be her grandparents. Janet Filber of Raleigh sat on a nearby wall watching the scene.
“I just love the intergenerational aspect of it,” Filber said. “This is awesome, the best festival in Raleigh ever. There are so many great acts to see, too. I’m gonna go looking for more.”
In just its second year in Raleigh, World of Bluegrass has become firmly entrenched here to the point that it’s difficult to imagine IBMA ever taking it anywhere else.
The city has embraced bluegrass from the mayor’s office on down; among the billed sponsors of the outdoor City Plaza were “Ron & Nancy McFarlane,” the mayor and her husband.
Raleigh’s quirky artistic side was on display throughout World of Bluegrass, starting with the “Banjostand” performance space/photo backdrop at the Raleigh Convention Center (a project overseen by Kim Curry-Evans, public art coordinator for the city).
Local vendors including Holly Aiken were doing brisk business selling bluegrass-themed products. Even the exteriors of the Red Hat Amphitheater’s bathroom trailers were decorated with psychedelic, brightly colored forest scenes that nicely complemented the Convention Center’s “Shimmer Wall” display.
Break-dancers join in
The city’s street performers were out, too, even the non-bluegrass ones. On Friday night, two young break-dancers set up on Fayetteville Street and spun through a dizzying series of acrobatic handstands and headstands as funk played on a boombox.
“That’s fine,” remarked an older gentleman as he watched, “but I wanna see ’em do it to bluegrass.”
The break-dancers called themselves Raleigh Rockers, and Brandon “No Cents” McCrimmon said they were “just giving people a little different taste of Raleigh.” Told that an observer said he wanted to see bluegrass break-dancing, he smiled.
“Eh,” McCrimmon said, “we could do it.”
‘Amazing and heartwarming’
For the second straight year, the weather mostly cooperated enough to ensure good crowds for World of Bluegrass’ outdoor weekend portion. Friday night saw some drizzle, but the heavy rain didn’t hit until well after midnight. Saturday was a cool, dry and windy fall day.
“Overall, we’re really pleased,” said Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the IBMA. “Once again, the reception and hospitality from Raleigh has been amazing and heartwarming. Everyone I’ve spoken with just can’t stop talking about how welcome they’ve felt here. Your city really knows how to put on a street festival and celebration.”
Saturday’s schedule featured music luminaries including Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby. North Wilkesboro’s Kruger Brothers, featuring banjo master Jens Kruger (a former winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music) also appeared and debuted a stunningly beautiful new concerto composition called “Lucid Dreamer.”
But whether you cared about celebrities or not, the music was everywhere – to be played as well as heard. Stand in just the right spot, where you could hear multiple jams with ringing banjos and mandolins over thumping bass, and it sounded like the beat of a heart.