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As a part of their global music requirement, music students at UNC Chapel Hill are able to take a bluegrass elective course, open by audition only (to music majors and non-majors alike) on eligible traditional instruments and/or vocals. The Carolina Bluegrass Band contains about twenty students divided into two sections this semester, who rehearse as either the "upstairs band" or "downstairs band" based on their practice location. While the ensembles shifted and changed based on the tune to allow for appropriate instrumentation and solo opportunities, the groups seemed to be organized into beginner/intermediate and intermediate/advanced sections, based on experience in the genre and comparable musical level. The Carolina Bluegrass Band's concert was just plain fun, full of engaging chemistry between players and great respect for the folk/traditional and bluegrass genres.
Introduced by director Russell Johnson, an accomplished bluegrass performer and songwriter in his own right, the "downstairs band" kicked things off with Bill Monroe's "Road to Columbus." It took a song or two to build up energy and lock into each other's rhythms, but Alex Weir (mandolin, vocals) did a great job starting the traditional tune "Salt Creek" and helping get the group fired up.
I would have liked to see the students take a little bit more time between songs to acknowledge the audience or recognize their soloists, even though there were already many transitions and microphone adjustments to make throughout the jam-packed program. (There were over thirty songs performed in this program, and unfortunately I don't have the space to cover them all, so I have selected highlights!)
Johnson had chosen a student in each band to play the bass part: in the "downstairs band," it was Landon Powell on amplified guitar playing on the lower strings of the instrument, which I found pretty clever. Powell's bass and Leslie Engle's rhythm guitar helped anchor everyone really well. In the "upstairs band," which came on in the second half of the act, Lewis Nazarian played an amplified electric bass, which sounded closer to a string bass, but perhaps a little more mellow. Nazarian also took the lead on Billy Apostol's "On the Line" with an amazing amount of energy, which was a treat to see after he had to spend so long alone behind the rest of his group.
The "downstairs band," who started both of the evening's acts, rotated through banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and vocals, typically with about six people playing per song. Some were more engaged with the audience than others – generally the vocalists – and some had better chemistry together than others, but all their sets were great tunes unified and full of solo opportunities for just about everyone. Kate Livesay (mandolin), Rose Deconto (banjo), Townes Ellum (fiddle, guitar, vocals), and Nick Straight (banjo) were steady players that filled out many songs and adapted quickly to changing styles and leaders. Ellum brought a strong, soulful voice to the mix that especially shined in the traditional "Cluck Old Hen."
Jonah Dixon (guitar, vocals) bravely premiered his own song "White Clouds," a modern take on bluegrass that was very grounded in traditional rhythm and chord structure; it was a crowd favorite. Eliza Meyer (guitar, clawhammer banjo, vocals), Katie Nicholls (fiddle, vocals), and Campbell Wheby (piano, vocals) had especially lovely, tight vocal harmonies in "Tall Pines" by Damon Black. Meyer, who sounded totally at home in the genre, showcased her strong voice in a lovely rendition of "Long Black Veil" by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. Wheby took the lead on piano and vocals late in the show with "Tennessee Blues" by Bobby Charles. This gorgeous contemporary-pop blues-bluegrass waltz amalgam, utilizing the incongruous Steinway grand piano upstage, was full of supple harmonies and some really excellent music-making by all involved.
The "upstairs band" seemed to have some players with more experience either on their respective instruments and/or in bluegrass in general, because the chemistry was instantly palpable, and the technical level of some of their playing was absolutely incredible. Matteo Meloni's banjo playing was energetic and looked effortless as he stood cool and relaxed, generally supporting the group but occasionally getting to take an awesome solo, such as the ubiquitous opening of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" by Earl Scruggs. Holden Ruch (guitar, vocals) and Aidan Buehler (mandolin, vocals) did some amazing singing in "I Won’t Care (A Hundred Years From Now)" by David Largus McEnery and John Starling's "Mean Mother Blues," and when they were supplemented by Sophie Nachman (fiddle, vocals), it was like magic. Nachman was another natural who seemed altogether at home onstage, with a strong and resonant tone in both her singing and fiddling. Her fiddle duos with Nick Tutwiler in tunes like "99 Years and One Dark Day" by Jesse Fuller were a lot of fun, and the two fiddlers blended together really well. Tutwiler's playing had a more classical-violin feel to it, but that ended up allowing him to sound very relaxed and smooth in the technical moments in "Ocean Of Diamonds" by Cliff Carnahan.
Alexander Meredith (mandolin) was a powerhouse of a player, getting applause just about every time he played a solo line! His rapid and intricate solo in "Dixie Breakdown" by Don Reno and Jim Lunsford was breathtaking, and by far the most engaging song on the program was towards the very end, featuring Meredith and Buehler on mandolin melodies that sometimes played in call and response but resolved into a fiery and jaw-dropping duo. Both players displayed amazing finger work, and seemed to be having a great time, which in turn pumped the audience up into a frenzy! To close the night, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" featured everyone from both groups (plus faculty member Tatiana Hargreaves, who helps coach the ensemble) sharing the stage, rotating solos, and having a good old-fashioned jam session. The Carolina Bluegrass Band has certainly worked hard to achieve an atmosphere of community, and it was such a delight to be a part of that energy, celebrating genres born in North Carolina and only getting better with age.