For all the fun I had throughout the IBMA festivities during the weekend, I must admit that the final day started with disappointment. Jesse McReynolds, IBMA Hall of Fame mandolinist and half of the legendary sibling duo Jim & Jesse, wouldn’t be playing the noon slot at the Raleigh Convention Center ballroom, his only scheduled appearance of the festival and one of the first things I circled when the slate of shows was released. “Good, bluegrass should have some broken hearts,” a friend responded when I texted him the bad news. Just a few minutes earlier, there was an announcement that McReynolds wouldn’t be playing because of his health—he battled cancer last decade and had his second heart procedure of the year less than a month ago—though it presumably could have been made much earlier.
Other than McReynolds’s absence, though, the disappointments (realizing that Tony Trischka wouldn’t be playing other than at workshops; getting shut out of Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue thanks to a private party) were few and far between on Saturday, despite a line-up that seemed considerably weaker than Friday’s. As the finale of downtown Raleigh’s fall festival season, it would be impossible to consider Saturday anything but a smashing success, as dense throngs of people, strollers and dogs made moving along Fayetteville Street feel like a warm-up for navigating the State Fair on a weekend. Hopefully, the overwhelming turnout won’t deter locals from attending in the future, although it did make it clear that some logistical challenges involving stage placements deserve to be addressed. (Confidential to the City of Raleigh: Turn the City Plaza stage, please.)
Both the street festival and the big Red Hat show took a few more risks than last year, which seemed to produce a slightly more diverse crowd, though it was still rather monochromatic. Soon after Yonder Mountain String Band wrapped its set of Colorado hippiegrass, Keller Williams sat in with the Travelin’ McCourys at Red Hat for a half-hour, downplaying the McCourys’ considerable chops with simple instrumentation that put the focus squarely on Williams’ goofy lyricism and a cover of “Pumped Up Kicks” that was little more than a novelty. Neither of them resonated with me—Keller’s efforts as bandleader quickly paled when Del finally hit the stage—but those with multi-colored dreadlocks and tie-dyed pants formed a much larger contingent than they did a year ago.
The more accessible street portion tried a few new tricks, too. The frozen-in-time country of Goldsboro’s impeccably dressed Malpass Brothers pleased the perpetually packed Hargett Street crowd by sprinkling their originals among covers of Johnny Cash and the Louvin Brothers. The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Hubby Jenkins followed shortly after in the sunny City Plaza, employing his arsenal of strings for a solo set of old-time, folk and blues numbers that fell in line with his band’s mission. If only there were a way to bring the Chocolate Drops to Raleigh during IBMA week, the string band could help educate some folks on the music that helped shape bluegrass.
Despite the hours of bluegrass I’d already heard over the past few days, I couldn’t help but try to find a solid old-school outfit to close out the weekend. Playing the final showcase in the California Bluegrass Association suite, Chris Henry and Hardcore Grass fit the bill perfectly. A fine songwriter, Henry is an even better mandolinist, and the rest of his hard-driving, fast-picking band are no slouches, either. The Nashville-based sextet innovates from within a traditional framework, breathing new life and creativity into long-lived forms. Though a hotel room hardly has the best acoustics, the intimate environment helped make this one of the best of the many fine sets I saw at this year’s IBMA festival.
It was a wonderful end to a seemingly endless sequence of banjos, suits, mandolins and harmonies.
Chris Henry & Hardcore Grass, “Colorado Sweetheart”