Thursday, September 26, 2013

World of Bluegrass 2013: Bluegrass Ramble Wednesday Night

Photos by Justin Weber
The International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Wide Open Bluegrass festival kicks into high gear this weekend, but there is an incredible number of events are taking place during the week.

A series of showcases called the Bluegrass Ramble filled downtown Raleigh venues Wednesday night and I was able to sample a small and varied portion of them. With tables set up on the concert floor, Tir Na Nog felt as packed as it can be for Charlottesville duo The Honey Dewdrops. Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish sing in gorgeous harmony over banjo, guitar and mandolin. Parrish’s voice is bright and clear which cuts through the smoky texture of Wortman’s vocals.

Fans of Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange will find a lot to like in The Honey Dewdrops. The Dewdrops have a more traditional sound and are more romantic with some beautiful love songs, but their song in protest of mountain top removal mining, “Hills of Our Home,” showed the duo has a lot of depth as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Henhouse Prowlers. This quartet from Chicago played the Longview Center with an awareness of the oddness of playing murder ballads and drinking songs in an old church.

The group switches lead vocals often, but the most distinctive voice is that of banjo player Ben Wright. His guttural effects lend a rough, dangerous quality to the Prowlers songs. Surprisingly, the band can also sing a hell of a ballad. The admitted bar band used the great sounding Longview Center to their advantage and played some of the quieter songs in their catalogue.

IBMA is bringing plenty of living legends to Raleigh this week and Peter Rowan is one of them. He commanded the stage at a full Lincoln Theater. Rowan was one of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass boys and has a long and diverse career playing everything from bluegrass to psychedelic rock and roll.

Rowan’s vocals are gentle and velvety, but confident and firm. His stage presence is calm and welcoming. Even without knowing anything about him previously, it was clear Rowan was a seasoned, accomplished musician. It was easy to be in awe of him as he played an assortment of classic tunes with skill and heart.

The night wouldn’t have been complete without seeing some local award winners. Asheville’s Town Mountain won two IBMA Momentum awards for “Band of the Year” and “Best Vocalist” for lead singer Robert Greer and it’s easy to hear why. Greer has a strong, unwavering, pure country voice well suited to the band’s honky tonk tones.

Vigorous solos and upbeat tunes energized the room at Kings Barcade despite half the room being seated. All night there were plenty of hoots, hollers and claps during performances.

While walking from venue to venue, I thought about the Hopscotch Festival that had filled these same venues just a few weeks earlier. There’s no use comparing them because the audiences are so vastly different, but that’s just it. The fact that Raleigh can host two incomparable music festivals just weeks apart and have them be not only well attended, but passionately attended is an impressive feat. It’s hard to imagine another city that could host both successfully.

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