This past week marks another turning point in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual conferences. As previously announced, 2012 is to be the final year for the World of Bluegrass conference in Music City, USA (Nashville), so it is a real tall feather in newly appointed Director Nancy Cardwell’s cap that the Nashville run is going out as the best conference in recent years.
In no small way, three European acts are responsible for helping the overall “High-Tide” momentum. Ireland’s Niall Toner and I Draw Slow along with Germany’s Covered Grass each did what they do to best and set the bar of excellence up several notches.
To my delight, the activity level upon my arrival at the Nashville Convention Center late in the afternoon was strikingly different and in more abundance from last year’s experience. Several private showcases were also being held off-site but close enough for walking back and forth. That happened to be my quasi-planned agenda.
Pinecastle records had invited me to attend an evening of showcases with their artists at nearby Jack’s Bar-B-Que on Broadway in Downtown Nashville, which turned out to be just about a half block away and on a side note, possibly the best BBQ in Nashville, or at least the best I’ve yet to have had and certainly worth a return trip.
Pinecastle Records and Mountain Music Entertainment teamed up and presented one hyper-show after another. Two of our European friends just happened to be on the bill this night at this showcase. I Draw Slow from Ireland, featuring the brother/sister duo of Dave and Louise Holden came first and although the crowd pushed right up to the stage, those of us standing in the hall way toward the back were still treated to some rousing and animated performances.
Ireland’s other best-kept-secret, also new to the Pinecastle Label, Niall Toner came up after a buffer from another of the American bands on the bill. Pinecastle had set this night up as the CD Release Party for Nialls latest “Onward & Upward” CD. Niall had disappeared for a brief spell earlier in the night and now we had the possible reason for his absence. He’d apparently been down on the street pulling in last minute musicians to stand-in as replacements for the Niall Toner Band who weren’t present for some unannounced reason.
Much to Niall’s credit as a competent and known quantity around Nashville and the world’s bluegrass circles, he managed to lasso Italian mandolinist Martino Coppo from Red Wine and the bassist Konrad Liddy from I Draw Slow to form his entourage for the night. Niall announced that they’d had very little time to learn his songs – I’m guessing about 30 minutes if even that much – and on at least two occasions probably played and heard the tunes for the very first time right then and there during the performance as Niall pulled out some archive songs to satisfy crowd requests.
A testament to the quality of Martino Coppo’s ability was obvious as he kicked off one of the unknown songs and proceeded to play lead parts as tasteful and sweet as anyone ever could. Konrad Liddy, too, got in some good licks on the unfamiliar material to prove his merit.
Niall Toner’s songwriting, though, was the highlight of the evening – playing songs, unknown to all of us, for the very first time in public. Yet each song had a familiarity that the audience could quickly grab and hold some ownership of their own – the mark of a seasoned songwriter very familiar to connecting with listeners. After a raucous set of bands previously, Niall’s slow Irish drawl while introducing songs and explaining the impetus for each was a comfort and the much smaller crowd that remained seemed to appreciate the change.
Niall’s unique ability to help us emote a chuckle and guffaw while a wet tear was still streaming down our cheek from a previous line is quite the essence of a “songwriter extraordinaire.” One tune that will be forever tattooed verbally on my heart, “Remember Me”, deals with the guy at the end of his life who wishes to be remembered “…just how I was, not as I am today…” . Still another tune strikes up the smiles very quickly when Niall desperately tries to find someone…anyone who could change his “Million Dollar Bill”.
Meanwhile Germany’s Covered Grass was quickly making new friends and fans by the hundreds over at the Nashville Convention Center where I chanced to hear their last performance of the night. The band followed Michigan’s sensational Detour Bluegrass Band featuring Missy Armstrong.
I was able to corral Missy into sitting with me right in the very first row during Covered Grass’ performance. I find it helps to have another set of eyes and ears and opinions when reviewing a new band and someone of Missy’s caliber sitting next to me was an unexpected and pleasant addition to the experience.
I must note here that due to the lateness of the evening and numerous other showcases happening simultaneously, the Covered Grass set went seriously unnoticed as the room emptied and never refilled. To the band’s credit and professionalism though, had it not been for an announcement they made from the stage, I’d never have known that we were alone in an empty room. My attention was focused up front and I had absolutely no knowledge of what was transpiring behind me. The band performed a full set knowing that they were playing for themselves primarily. Even though they called attention to the fact, I quickly forgot all about our solitary condition and easily immersed myself in their presentation.
Missy informed me that she had seen their main-stage set the previous night and said that she enjoyed it so much that she was looking forward to seeing it again. It’s high praise when one performer watches another and then want’s a repeat performance.
With one just getting over a sickness from the lengthy travel and another just coming down with the same sickness, Covered Grass provided a fine example of showmanship sure to capture new fans on either side of the Atlantic.
The band’s English is quite good and they communicated to us easily, however subtle reminders of their nationality came when banjoist Volker Fisher counted off the song with…”eins, TWO, drei, vier…” After I thought I’d heard that for the second time, I asked Missy if he’d done what I thought he’d done and she confirmed that she’d heard it numerous times ... WOW … who’d have thunk it ... bi-lingual tempo cadence … now that’s clever in any language.
The following night I had the opportunity to see I Draw Slow once again, this time in a completely different environment – up on the big stage with professional sound and background lighting. The band dressed up just a bit with more stage costuming than previously in the informal setting of the night before, with Louise in a long flowing skirt and blouse and a old-world, corset-style vest accent that automatically focused your attention to her willowy figure as she flowed and swayed around the microphone to the beat of the tunes she was singing. Her voice coming through the massive P.A. system with her charming Irish brogue was enough to make every man in the audience swoon with desire for walk with a lovely such lass through an Irish meadow full of four-leaf clovers and a distant rainbow.
It was this performance that really called out to me with the notion that this is not so different from American Bluegrass. I Draw Slow features mostly tunes written by the Holdens but they could just as easily have ripped off some lightning fast Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs tunes with complete competence and still held the audience in the palm of their hands. The fact that they did just that with their own material testifies to them having some staying-power in the bluegrass community. Look for them to be around and a driving force for a long while.
I also got a chance to see a second Niall Toner performance on this night and once again it was late and a very small crowd, but Niall kept to the high standard set by his fellow countrymen and didn’t disappoint. Once again Martino Coppo was drafted with little notice but this time Special Consensus bassist David Thomas was on the Dog House. And once again, both sidemen proved to be a perfect setting to fill in around Niall’s vocal lines and rhythm guitar.
Now it’s not as if this piece of writing isn’t already past the point of toleration but I haven’t even given the American bands more than a cursory brush-over so, suffice it to say that they too did a fantastic job of raising the bar but that will have to be left for another time and place.
Hat’s off to Germany and Ireland for sending their best.