A funny thing happened during Wednesday night’s showcases at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass – some bluegrass broke out. Unfortunately, not a lot of folks witnessed it; the crowd was the smallest of the week.
But those who stuck with the program were rewarded with a solid set of showcases that encapsulated the past, present and future of the music. (I’ll focus here on two up-and-coming bands and an established European act, while my colleague Cliff Abbott will write about three other bands that graced the ballroom stage).
April Verch is one of those young pickers who can drive away any angst you might feel about the future of bluegrass. As she danced her way onto the stage, some folks in the crowd no doubt resigned themselves to another performance on the fringes.
But once the two-time Canadian champion started fiddling, all of the hallmarks of great bluegrass were there – a Flatt and Scruggs tune (Waiting to Hear You Call Me Darlin’), tight three-part harmonies around a single microphone, a couple of fiddle tunes and some scorching instrumental work by April, Cody Walters (who traded off between banjo and upright bass) and Clay Ross (guitar).
Most of the band’s showcase songs were from April’s CD, That’s How We Run, which features some of the year’s hottest fiddling. But the CD masks one thing that smacks live audiences right in the face – April’s unflagging energy. Whether fiddling or dancing, she’s fully engaged.
“We love to do a lot of things and bluegrass is one of our favorites,” April said at one point. But even when the April Verch Band strayed to some of those other “things” – step dancing or a new song with a classic country feel – the pickers remained firmly in the bluegrass camp to the end.
And what an end it was. April’s tribute to John Hartford, A Riverboat’s Gone, transitioned into a Hartford tune with such intense fiddle licks that April’s bow was shedding hair.
Then, April left the stage the same way she had entered – dancing. The crowd, its doubts dispelled, responded with a standing ovation.
Among the bands preceeding April to the stage were No One You Know and Monogram, a band from Czechoslovakia that performed all original material.
But the band would benefit from a stronger stage presence and a bit more energy. They didn’t introduce a single song, an oversight that is magnified when you perform original songs that others haven’t heard before.
Still, the music had a strong drive, with Rachel Bunge’s mandolin, Don Anderson’s bass and Lance Gainer’s guitar laying down a solid foundation for the banjo work of Ramie Bennett and some nifty Dobro adornments from Bruce Jones.
Monogram was a pleasant surprise. The Czech pickers have been playing bluegrass for 20 years, and it shows. The band is firmly rooted in traditional grass, as evidenced by their picking and their song titles. They focused mostly on material from their latest recording, Hit the Road. The whole band shines, but the lead vocals of Jakub Racek and the banjo work of Jaromir Jahoda stood out. Jahoda was especially hot on the instrumental Whiskey Shot.
On the stage and in hallway jam sessions, these guys were fine ambassadors for stressing the “I” in IBMA.