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ABOUT THIS BLOG: News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the "popular" variety.

A change of address for 'On The Beat'

We're breaking in a new computer publishing system here at News & Observer-land; and if you think any of us look more frazzled than usual, well, that's probably why. Anyway, part of the process is that there is a new platform for all of the paper's blogs, including this one. The new blog address for On The Beat is newsobserver.com/onthebeat, so please do stop on by.

The first post involves Vanilla Ice -- now isn't that enticing?

"World of Bluegrass" -- the sky's the limit

IBMA's "World of Bluegrass" closed with a literal bang on Saturday night, as an unannounced fireworks display erupted over Red Hat Amphitheater just after Steve Martin and friends finished a terrific show for a soldout house. That wrapped up an enormously successful first year for Raleigh as IBMA's new host city -- and one big reason why the whole thing came together so well was that Raleigh was as much of a star as the music. For particulars on that, see Saturday's column about the "Wide Open Bluegrass" street festival; and Sunday's post-IBMA wrapup.

Hotels are not for sleeping during "World of Bluegrass"

Remember the "Riot House" hotel scene in the movie "Almost Famous," which showed free-for-all jam sessions going on in just about every room and hallway? Didn't it look like fun? There's a bluegrass version of that going on right here in Raleigh during the IBMA's "World of Bluegrass" festival, and it's a very cool thing to drop in on. Check the story about that here.

Live-blogging the IBMA Awards

The International Bluegrass Music Association's "World of Bluegrass" festival continues, and Thursday is awards night -- in which the IBMA presents its annual awards for entertainer of the year, song of the year and so on. The show runs from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Eastern Time, and I'll be live-blogging it right here.

5 p.m. -- The ceremony won’t start for a couple of hours, but we have one result to report from the Special Awards Luncheon that happened earlier in the day. Raleigh graphic designer Sue Meyer (one of the subjects from this story on Tuesday, didn’t win Best Graphic Design for a Recorded Project. That award went to the team behind Carl Jackson’s “Grace Notes” album.

7:15 -- The Grammys and Oscars could learn something from the IBMA's when it comes to award scheduling. They have the speechifying happen before the ceremonies, rather than in the middle. Board chairman Jon Weisberger says some nice things about Raleigh as host city.

7:20 -- Also spotted in the lobby during the pre-ceremony red carpet reception, country singer Lee Ann Womack, unexpectedly in town for the festivities. While she's not currently on the performance schedule, she will no doubt turn up onstage a time or two this week.

7:26 -- Tonight's show is being broadcast on Sirius-XM; and they're actually taping coached pre-recorded applause from the crowd for use later. Gosh, how...showbiz and non-bluegrassy...

7:30 -- And here we go with our hosts for the evening, "North Carolina's own STEEP CANYON RANGERS." The curtain rises and they start into "Tell The Ones I Love," title track to their excellent new album. They sound great. Alas, I believe this will be the only song they get to do here tonight.

7:33 -- "Red light flashing across that river bridge/And I’m headin’ down to Caroline..." Nice, very nice. They sound great.

7:35 -- A nice hand afterward and they walk offstage. "Tonight's show was brought to you by..." And here I thought this would not involve commercial interruptions.

7:37 -- Rangers back en masse, at the microphone to commence introductions, promising an evening of "no basketball trash talk." Aww...

7:38 -- Nice shoutout to the late great Earl Scruggs; wish they'd mentioned Doc Watson, too, who also passed last year.

7:40 -- Amusing little joke by Mike Guggino that bluegrass was "discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1792."

7:41 -- Rhonda Vincent and the Rage out and go blasting into "Run Mississippi." Whoops in the crowd; this, too, is very nice. The hall sounds great tonight.

7:42 -- Graham and Woody from the Rangers back out -- in UNC basketball jerseys. "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"'s rain down. So much for no hoop trash talk. The boos are so loud that it's impossible to hear followup jokes about other folks coming onstage in State and Duke jerseys. Oh well.

7:46 -- But back to business. The first award, vocal group of the year goes to...

7:47 -- Gibson Brothers. Possible positive harbinger for Raleigh's Joe Newberry, nominated with them for co-writing song of the year.

7:48 -- The first of what will be many humble acceptance speeches, with some brotherly joshing between the winners.

7:49 -- On to dobro player of the year...

7:50 -- Rob Ickes wins. A popular choice with the crowd. He acknowledges that his fellow nominees "probably wanna kill me," going on to describe the first time he heard dobro at age 13 and apologizing to his wife for being gone so much, and also at home. Kids, parents, Blue Highway, everybody here tonight -- I think he's busted the 30-second limit on acceptance speeches.

7:52 -- Kenny and Amanda Smith out for a musical interlude.

7:57 -- Rangers Nicky and Mike return coming out of commercial break and give thanks to the International Bluegrass Museum for its sponsorship. Guitars from Spain, banjos from Africa, Dobro from Slovakia -- okay, it's international. And here's proof, Canada's Spinney Brothers.

8:00 -- Spinneys give props to Doc and Earl, and gives a shout-out to Jens Kruger. And on to instrumental recorded performance of the year, which goes to...

8:02 -- "Foggy Mountain Rock" by a cast of thousands (Tom Adams, Dan Tyminski, Ron Stewart, Dennis Crouch, Clay Hess, Randy Kohrs...).

8:04 -- We're right on to fiddler of the year. And that goes to...

8:05 -- Jason Carter from the Del McCoury Band. He comes onstage and says he does not know what to say. After deciding on "thanks," he acknowledges his parents, his bandleader, various peers...

8:07 -- Lake Junaluska's own Balsam Range, nominated for seven awards including entertainer of the year, get to do their performance. It suddenly sounds kind of mountainous in here.

8:10 -- "If you don't know where you're goin'/Then your love will take you there..." Best singing of the night thus far, vocal harmonies nailed with utter perfection.

8:11 -- Male vocalist and banjo player of the year are next. And male vocalist goes to...

8:13 -- Junior Sisk, who seems to be a very popular choice. Standing ovation.

8:14 -- "I about melted and fell outta the seat," he says. Someone yells they love Sisk, he says I love you back. "Thank God for the gift of singing," he says, voice quivering. Moving.

8:15 -- Next is banjo, given in Earl Scruggs' native state for the first time. And it goes to...

8:16 -- Mike Munford. Are his sons here? Wait a minute...

8:17 -- "This is a huge honor, and also a huge clerical error." I'll say. What happened to Mumford & Sons? Wait a minute... (Okay, I'll stop.)

8:18 -- Back to music with the Gibson Brothers. Somewhere in the crowd, Joe Newberry is probably singing along.

8:24 -- Coming out of the commercial break, female vocalist of the year goes to...Claire Lynch. She gives thanks to her bandmates, among others and concludes with, "Whoo hoo, gonna be a good night!"

8:26 -- Next is guitar player of the year. Which goes to...Bryan Sutton, who is appropriately humble and brief (to the show producers' relief, no doubt).

8:28 -- Another acknowledgement of sponsors (yay?), followed by an over-long introduction of "the next generation of superstars"; teenage players, who all introduce themselves. Young woman from Lexington gets a big hand, and then they jam, "Steel Drivin' Man" -- with our Lexington representative on vocals.

8:32 -- These kids are really good. But you know, I'd rather have heard another song by Balsam Range. Just sayin'.

8:36 -- Time for emerging artist and mandolin player. Emerging artist goes to...

8:37 -- Della Mae, the all-female group, who all appear dressed to kill. As for mandolin player, there's the obligatory Bill Monroe reference. And it goes to...

8:40 -- ...Adam Steffey, from Boxcars. He professes it was "jarring" to be nominated, let alone win. "If I play my last note onstage and pass out dead right there, I'll be a happy man." Now that's going out like a bluegrasser.

8:42 -- It's six-time-nominee IIIrd Time Out's turn onstage, with a right nice version of "Gentle on My Mind."

8:49 -- Time to induct a legend of the game into the IBMA Hall of Fame, fiddler Paul Warren (from Flatt & Scruggs, among others). It goes on a little longer than it should, including turns at the microphone by multiple members of his family.

8:57 -- Whew, finally, on to some music. The Earls of Lester come onstage to play a Paul Warren tribute; this is the real old school stuff. Nice...

9:01 -- A couple of Punch Brothers, Noam and Chris, out to present Recorded Event of the Year. Which goes to...

9:04 -- ..."What'll I Do," another large-cast production: North Carolina's own Terry Baucom with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Wyatt Rice...

9:06 -- Some good jokes about the anonymity of bass players, introducing bassist of the year. Which goes to...

9:07 -- ...yet another Alison Krauss sideman, Barry Bales. Too bad she had to cancel. Sigh...

9:08 -- Blue Highway out with something new, arena-bluegrass. They fill the room better'n just about anybody else heard thus far tonight.

9:13 -- Coming out of commercial break, Peter Rowan and Sam Bush come out to induct guitar god Tony Rice into the Hall of Fame.

9:14 -- Is Peter Rowan drunk, or just giddy? This is actually kind of weird; funny, though. Rowan stands behind Bush, hands through his armpits. Um...

9:16 -- Okay, this is also going on too long. Rowan is wandering about the stage as Bush gives chapter and verse about Rice's career.

9:19 -- Is Rowan going to recite the title of every album Rice released?...

9:21 -- At last, Rice himself is onstage. He strikes a pose and gets quite a standing ovation.

9:22 -- Poor fellow can only speak in a rasp, voice too damaged to sing. But he's still quick with a quip. "The best I can do is to tell you all, 'Thank you times a trillion.' And I mean it."

9:25 -- But...somehow, he can summon up his real, non-raspy voice for short periods of time; an apparent result of treatment? I don't really understand, but the upshot seems to be that maybe someday he'll be able to sing again. The crowd applauds, loudly.

9:28 -- The obligatory thank-you's: Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, David Grisman, Nancy Cardwell of IBMA...

9:32 -- Ricky Skaggs, Bush and others out for an all-star tribute to Rice. Good to get back to some actual music after all the yackety-yack.

9:37 -- With a banjo sitting unattended in a spotlight onstage, the roll call of the departed: Jack Clement, Willard Duncan, Chet Flippo, Al Lewis, Bill Martin and others...

9:39 -- "Thanks for your contributions, we will not forget you."

9:40 -- On to gospel recorded performance of the year; and the winner is...

9:42 -- "Beulah Land" by Marty Raybon; beating out (among others) "When He Beckons Me Home," a song by North Carolina guitarist George Shuffler.

9:43 -- Not surprisingly, Raybon's acceptance speech is kind of a mini-sermon.

9:45 -- And now Song of the year. Pulling here for our man Joe Newberry, nominated as co-writer of the Gibson Brothers' "They Called It Music." But one of the other nominees is "Gentle on My Mind." And it goes to...

9:46 -- YES! Joe Newberry again!! Two years in a row!!!

9:47 -- Eric Gibson asks Joe if he "has a minute" to talk about the song. Joe looks at his watch and goes to the mike. "What a thrill for me in my hometown." Always great to see one of the good guys win. Again!

9:49 -- Dailey & Vincent do their onstage turn. I wish I could go give Joe a high-five. Later for that.

9:51 -- Time for instrumental group of the year, presented by Joe Mullins and Junior Sisk, who pick guitar and banjo for about 30 seconds first; short and sweet. And it goes to...

9:54 -- ...the Boxcars. Have to admit I was pulling for Punch Brothers, but a fine choice nevertheless.

9:56 -- Album of the year, which goes to..."Papertown" by Balsam Range. This is a really good night for our North Carolina folks.

9:59 -- And now, ladies and gentlemen, the first-string varsity, Del McCoury Band. Wow...

10:05 -- All that's left is entertainer of the year. Rangers back out, explaining the IBMA voting process. First they announce all the categories given out at the Special Awards Lunch from earlier...

10:07 -- Momentum awards for mentor of the year, and so on. The tension grows...

10:09 -- Doyle Lawson and Claire Lynch out to present, with much banter. And IBMA the entertainer of the year is...

10:10 -- Gibson Brothers; with an assist from our man Joe Newberry! And that's a wrap. See everybody out and about on the "Bluegrass Ramble."

"The Bluegrass Ramble" takes no prisoners

The very top acts playing IBMA's "World of Bluegrass" festival this week are coming into town to play their one show in a large venue, stay in a nice hotel and leave. You could say they're the 1 percent. As for the other 99 percent playing the "Bluegrass Ramble" nightclub circuit, they're rolling into town however they can, playing anywhere and everywhere possible and hoping for a break. Just look for the folks hoofing acoustic instruments around downtown.

We picked out a band keeping a particularly grueling schedule and followed them around for the evening. Their story is here. Be sure to check out the accompanying photo gallery, too.

What is bluegrass?

Tuesday was opening day of the Raleigh edition of IBMA's "World of Bluegrass," and it featured plenty of business (this is the business convention part of the shindig, after all). There was also some discussion about what does and does not qualify as bluegrass in a post-Mumford & Sons world, with a famous keynote speaker as well as attendees from very far away offering some insightful wisdom. For more, see the day one report.

Also, check out the "Bluegrass Ramble" photo gallery from night one; and this piece about the closing gender gap in bluegrass.

"World of Bluegrass" goes behind the music

Bluegrass is like any other field of music, in that what you see onstage is just a small sliver of everything that goes on. Behind the scenes are countless numbers of people working away, contributing to the ecosystem of the bluegrass industry -- doing things like compiling historical data, writing liner notes, designing album covers, booking festivals and so on. It's not that the music wouldn't be heard without them, but they do help get it out into the world.

For a few hours on Thursday, some of these offstage folks will get their moment in the spotlight of the International Bluegrass Music Association's business convention at the Special Awards Luncheon. Two folks from Raleigh are among those up for awards, including the designer of this album cover (in the category of Best Graphic Design for a Recorded Project). For more on that, see this story from Tuesday's paper.

This is the first of a series of daily columns I'll be writing each day from the festival, so come on back. Today's coverage also includes an explanation on the difference between bluegrass and old-time, and a primer on bluegrass jam etiquette.

Joining forces: Berkeley Cafe and Sadlack's Heroes

There's major news today about two fabled and beloved Raleigh institutions, the Berkeley Cafe and Sadlack's Heroes. But it's the same piece of news: Sadlack's owner Rose Schwetz is taking over as the Berkeley's new owner.

After several months of remodeling this fall, the Berkeley will reopen in early 2014. For more, see this story.

Raleigh welcomes (and becomes a) World of Bluegrass

Years in the making, the International Bluegrass Music Association's "World of Bluegrass" festival and convention makes its Raleigh debut this week. And even after losing one of its biggest headliners in an 11th-hour cancellation -- too late to pull her picture from this illustration, alas -- IBMA is still shaping up to be quite the soiree.

You'll find lots and lots of preview coverage in the special section of Sunday's paper, including pieces about Steep Canyon Rangers and the unlikely duo they'll be backing up; as well as the ongoing World of Bluegrass blog (including a Bluegrass for Beginners playlist of some of the style's definitive songs). Furthermore, check out today's Tar Heel of the Week profile, which is of one of the people intimately involved with luring IBMA to Raleigh.

We'll have lots more coverage once the festival's events get underway on Tuesday, so stay tuned.

Sigur Ros: To feel, if not understand

RALEIGH -- Sigur Ros is most often referred to as a "post-rock" band, but "post-verbal" might be a more accurate label. This Icelandic ensemble is a group that once called an album "()," with untitled tracks. And in an ideal universe, nobody would actually review or write words about Sigur Ros; instead, we'd all somehow just respond emotionally to the music in a way that manifested itself to others.

The band has made a few moves toward mainstream Western linearity over the past 15 years, including a few songs with English lyrics. But as Sigur Ros' Saturday night show at a soggy Red Hat Amphitheater demonstrated, they're still pretty much the last word (beyond the last word, even) in evocative ambience that grips the heart rather than the head.

The rain reduced the pages of my notebook to illegible smudges, so I'm afraid I have few specifics to offer about the 90-minute show -- which somehow seems fitting. Sigur Ros is highly impressionistic music, and Saturday's most lasting impression was the image of frontman Jon Thor "Jonsi" Birgisson bowing his guitar, eyes closed and howling wordlessly in a torrential downpour.

Following a half-hour of wallpapery, ethereal solemnity by opening act Julianna Barwick, the headliners filed out in an 11-piece configuration with the core trio augmented by horns, strings, keyboards, extra percussion -- and the requisite killer light show. There were lasers and blinding strobes at seizure-inducing intensities, plus the homey touch of several dozen floor lamps with clear incandescent lightbulbs. The video screens showed looped and indistinct images of nature scenes, mostly, with cells growing and retracting, smoke dispersing, crashing waves and so on.

As for the music, it was dazzling, orchestrated as always by Jonsi. He used a bow on his guitar on all but a handful of songs, producing ambient roars of varying textures. Except for the one and only time he spoke to the audience between songs -- "Thank you very much, nice to be here," eight songs and one hour in -- I didn't understand a word all night.

But there was plenty to drink in beyond linear meanings, raw emotions and mood swings from crashing sonic waves that picked you up and swept you away. The 14 songs went back and forth between jarring and soothing, cannily paced mood music for long, cold nights. Although it worked pretty well for a warm wet one, too. At one point, someone in the crowd flung an Icelandic flag onstage and it landed right on Jonsi's hand.

Just before departing the stage at the end of the show and leaving his guitar laid down to feed back, Jonsi kicked over his microphone stand; perhaps that was just to emphasize that Sigur Ros isn't a band you need to understand in order to get. But the group returned to take a bow as the applause rained down, and the video screen flashed a single word: "TAKK."

That's "Thanks," y'all. I think.

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