In a modest city such as Raleigh, one situation that arises with large-scale, multi-venue music events is that many rooms must deviate from their general programming—and so, their customary clientele. For the last four years, it’s been evident when Hopscotch puts, for example, experimental artists in a flesh-and-sweat dance spot like The Hive. (Note: I have worked for the last four years as the co-director of Hopscotch.) And for the last two days, with the arrival of World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, it’s been evident again with string bands occupying rock clubs such as Kings and The Pour House (and largely flash-and-sweat dances spot like The Hive) for five consecutive days. The crowds you see are older and, for someone who spends too much time near such spaces, rather strangely foreign.
Still, it’s an interesting exercise in familiar rooms being given unfamiliar treatments: When peerless Virginia singer James King finished his 30-minute set in the Irish pub Tir Na Nog, for instance, the reverie I’d fallen into while watching his hermetic band was swiftly and unapologetically broken by a standing ovation just in front of the stage, led by a crowd of largely white and gray hair. “Standing?” you might ask. “Don’t people always stand to watch bands in Tir Na Nog, especially so late at night?”
Yes, but given the demographic, the bar made the smart decision to put tablecloth-covered dinner tables in front of the stage. People could sit there, or they could stand at the periphery. The standing was an event. In fact, last night, Tir Na Nog felt rather like a strange, small theater, not the cavernous pub it actually is, and the music of King and his sharp pickers cut better through the space for it. He seemed to intuit it, too, coming back for multiple encores and getting personal as he talked about his improved health and the trusting relationship he had with his label, Rounder Records. For all his sad songs, King beamed like a stage light.
Other times, though, the situation doesn’t quite have the same benefits: Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen—a relatively new group based out of Washington, D.C.—took the midnight slot last night at Kings. But they missed the 12 a.m. mark by a mile, grounded for more than 20 minutes by a soundcheck and monitor adjustments that seeemed ceaseless. Stretched across the stage and standing in front of four microphones, they tinkered constantly with the banjo and vocal levels. In a festival setting, these things happen, of course, but Dirty Kitchen seemed to let technical glitches infect the music. Their set seemed overzealous and jumpy, as if they needed to stuff too much activity into a diminished space to retroactively prove their worth. Perhaps that restlessness is to blame for a flubbed verse of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” during their fairly faithful cover. They didn’t stop with the sound issues, either. After one tune, they again complained about the banjo, with acoustic guitarist Chris Luquette attempting to displace frustration with humor by stretching his arms into an upward V, offering his best heavy metal tough-guy countenance and saying “It’s like we have 10 Marshall stacks of banjo in front of us.” He meant “behind us,” I suppose. I was done with Dirty Kitchen.
Such situations aren’t necessarily the fault of anybody or any band, but they do shade a newcomer’s perception. They make fast favorites. To wit, the wonderful five-female group Della Mae was up next at the Lincoln Theatre. The crowd thinned considerably after Steep Canyon Rangers’ (somewhat weary) midnight slot, but Della Mae seemed genuinely thrilled to be onstage, even if what should have been a simple linecheck was belabored by a buzz in the sound system that took a problem-solving team a few minutes to solve.
When they finally started playing, though, they were confident, controlled and incredibly charming. Their fast songs felt comfortably quick but not uncontrollably so, and their rather risqué lovemaking tune, “The Most,” was as collected and gentle as the material demanded. They’d recovered nicely from a difficult spot and, at the very least, won my admiration.
So, when Dirty Kitchen and Della Mae compete for the coveted IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award tonight in Memorial Auditorium, I know I’ll have an empirical favorite. Can Della Mae win two nights in a row? We’ll know in a few hours.