With perfect weather and portions of several streets closed down, downtown Raleigh was alive on Friday’s first full day of open IBMA festivities. Along with a strong slate of scheduled free performances—highlighted by Album of the Year winners Balsam Range, Guitarist of the Year Bryan Sutton, Emerging Artist of the Year nominees The Spinney Brothers, classically influenced trio The Kruger Brothers, and mandolinist/guitarist Lou Reid of The Seldom Scene—on or in more than a half-dozen stages or tents, there were impromptu jam sessions on the courthouse steps, in corners of the Raleigh Convention Center and throughout hotel lobbies and hallways. Around City Plaza, it would have been tough to find somewhere that you wouldn’t hear some picking.
Night one of Red Hat Amphitheater’s sold-out Wide Open Bluegrass weekend was won by the Punch Brothers, who almost seemed set on proving wrong the award show results from the previous night, when it was robbed of Instrumental Group of the Year. Leveraging Red Hat’s surprisingly good sound for an acoustic show, the quintet nimbly sprinted through acrobatic instrumentals that are more dramatic than any in bluegrass. Sure, frontman Chris Thile’s poppier ideas occasionally fall flat , and the band’s cover of “Brakeman’s Blues” could make any purist cringe, particularly after Thile introduced the Jimmie Rodgers original as a Bill Monroe tune, though the latter did play it. With a band as adventurous as this, there’s bound to be a few missteps. Between the many instances of progressive bluegrass and classical fusion, the pulsing indie rock-flavored tension of “Movement and Location,” and a traditionally minded cover of The Seldom Scene’s “Through The Bottom Of The Glass” led by guitarist Chris Eldridge’s vocal, there was plenty of boundless exploration to enjoy.
Del McCoury—whose energetic late-night performance Thursday at the Lincoln was an absolute joy—sandwiched the Punch Brothers with a set from his own band, then by taking center stage for the ad hoc collaboration with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Jason Carter and Mark Schatz. His own set proved yet again that the septuagenarian is one of the most engaging performers in bluegrass, with no signs of slowing down. While the supergroup jam had many impressive instrumental moments, including duets between Fleck and Douglas, questionable selections like Bush and McCoury’s take on U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” made it an uneven, though still special, performance.