If the five days of the World of Bluegrass conference and festival, which started last night in Raleigh, were a string band’s onstage setlist, the beginning would be a ballad, maybe even a waltz—slow, steady and solid, but only a suggestion of what is to come.

Bike racks that will soon be used to barricade streets and surround stages sat fallow in dark corners last night, police tape tied around them as they awaited inevitable deployment. The Raleigh Convention Center, the festival’s gargantuan hub, felt like an oceanic tanker controlled only by a skeletal crew, full of distant chatter and strings strummed somewhere and infrastructure waiting to be used. And just after midnight, the upstairs hallways of the downtown Marriott, which will teem later this week with musicians jamming toward the rising dawn, seemed still, as though it were early enough in the week to get an honest night’s rest.

But the musicians were busy, as were many of the clubs, conference rooms and convention center spaces they played during the first night of the now-annual Bluegrass Ramble. In Kings, fans hollered for an encore from the incredible Earl Brothers, who sound like they’re transmitting live from an old AM radio. And in The Pour House, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado worked to muster energy for the second of their three sets in one night. Between songs, the musicians lamented how long they’d been awake and how distant their travels were to get to Raleigh. And most of their set lagged, too, as though this were their first time away from home. (It wasn’t.) The crowd chattered in response, at least until their last song began with a stunning, stand-up jolt of energy. Greg Blake, a broad-chested vocalist with fleet fingers that snap along the neck of his six-string, launched a cappella into Jimmy Martin’s “Free Born Man,” his huge tone rattling the room like a bass amplifier. People paid attention. The atmosphere crested. They were done, and the customers were satisfied, as the last impression proved to be the lasting one.

YouTube video