World of Bluegrass week, and the Wide Open Bluegrass festival that follows, is always the high point of the year for bluegrass lovers, especially those of us who work in the industry. It’s the only time when dang near everyone is congregated in the same spot for a few days, allowing for happy reunions, catching up, and intensive networking – not to mention the overwhelming amount of quality music.
With so much on offer, it’s difficult to choose just a few highlights, but here I go all the same.
Alex Leach Band – Ever since he was a youngster, Alex Leach has been making his presence felt in the bluegrass world. Initially as a teen DJ on WDVX radio near Knoxville, he amazed all and sundry with his expansive knowledge of bluegrass history, and his deep appreciation of the sound. In recent years he was a staple of Ralph Stanley II’s touring group, delivery hard-driving Stanley-style banjo, and his uniquely mournful mountain voice. Now as a bandleader with his own show, Alex has been performing all over downtown Raleigh this past few days. We caught them on Tuesday afternoon, and were very impressed with their set. As a new group, there were a few stumbles, but Leach’s singing and his boundless energy are something to behold. Seeing he and his wife, Miranda, working the single microphone was as entertaining as the music.
Alex plays guitar with Miranda handling harmony vocals. The two of them are precious together, and she is almost as much of an energizer bunny as her husband. Brandon Masur is on banjo, and plays with the same forward-roll-centric approach that was Alex’s domain with II. Caleb Erickson plays mandolin, and JT Coleman bass.
Like many bands that follow the hyper-traditional path, they feature a sound heavily influenced by The Stanley Brothers, but also include a fun side with rockabilly numbers like Jump, Jive and Wail, and Tequila from The Ventures. Don’t miss them if you have the chance.
The Exhibit Hall – There is no other place or time when an interested spectator can see so many instruments, accessories, educational and recreational offerings, and vacation options all in a single large room. Oh… with live bluegrass as a side benefit! A serious buyer can sample a variety of professional grade banjos, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, or reso-guitars on display. Or pick up a strap, picks, or strings. Or check out several of the universities offering classes in bluegrass music. Or find out about publications featuring the music, or charitable organizations that support it. A number of large retailers with a bluegrass focus were on hand, along with all of the invited Bluegrass Ramble showcase artists.
Representatives from multiple weekend festivals were on site, from as far away as New Zealand! And a number of microphone companies showing their wares.
Even for folks who can’t make the weeklong business conference, it would be worth the cost of a flight to see all these products, and meet people from the companies, gathered in one spot. You really have to see it believe it.
Alan Bibey & Grasstowne – Pure chance brought us to a hotel suite showcase on Wednesday night, sponsored by Mountain Fever Records. Late nights after a long day are tough for your diligent correspondent, but I made the exception to see an all-acoustic set by Alan Bibey & Grasstowne. They played in the suite with no lights or amplification, which I have long argued is the best possible way to encounter bluegrass music. The finest sound system or playback device pales substantially as compared to the natural tone of instruments and voices moving freely through the air.
Bibey and company turned in a flawless performance that was a bit shocking in its refinement. Each of his band members displays a comfortable virtuosity, and the play as a un it with remarkable clarity and cohesion. For 30 minutes they held the room spellbound by music from their recent recordings, plus a couple from fiddler Laura Orshaw’s latest. Bibey’s mandolin playing is brilliant and meticulous, and was rewarded this week with his first ever Mandolin Player of the Year award from the IBMA. Assisting on banjo was Justin Jenkins, as close to bluegrass banjo perfection as you might find, Tony Watt on guitar, a legit rhythm king, and the always solid Zak McLamb on bass.
This is undoubtedly the best band Alan has assembled to date, and with the vagaries of our industry, who knows how long he can keep them together. Hopefully a good many years, but make the effort to see them live anytime you can.
If you found different highlights at this week’s events, please share them in the comments.