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SteelDrivers make IBMA crowd yell for more

Nashville Convention Center, Nashville, September 29, 2008

Reviewed by Jessica Phillips

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As bluegrassers from around the globe began pouring into Music City this week, The SteelDrivers and others kicked off the International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass conference with a satisfying set.

Pinecastle Records artist The Dixie Bee-Liners, a sextet including lead singer Brandi Hart, performed several new songs, including Right and Bugs in the Basement. The group sounded tight, with Hart's silk-and-sandpaper voice complemented beautifully by fiddle player Rachel Johnson's feather-light harmonies. The group continued with the popular traditional-meets-contemporary mix, ending with the classic Working on a Building and their hit single, Down the Crooked Road.

East Tennessee natives Cumberland Gap Connection debuted several songs from their new album, "Waiting in the Harbor for a Train." Easily the smoothest act of the evening, their self-dubbed "almost family" harmonies shone through on the plaintive Gravel Springs. Mandolin player Gary Robinson, Jr.'s playing was especially bright and moving, while banjoist James Hamilton ripped through a rambling, reckless line on White Water.

Atlanta-based group The Dappled Grays was next up with its jazzy bluegrass style. Mandolin player Michael Smith is best known for his work with Sugarland (before the band-turned-trio-turned-duo hit the country charts). The Grays lacked stage presence, but made up for it with their dead-on timing and smooth harmony. Lead singer Calvert was not the best bluegrass singer out there, but she effectively combines a mix of Jewel and Alison Krauss. My Sundial, which sounded eerily familiar to a Willie Nelson intro, and the title track from their 2007 album, "Doing My Job," were the highlights.

Widow Maker started with an odd choice, Ham and Bacon, which sounded like a rip off of the Martha White theme song. Water's Rising, was a decent track, but the band didn't quite blend well together. The upbeat and defiant Deal Breaker resonated with many in this "love-cynical" industry crowd, as lead singer Julie Kerr dubbed them. The band was a little pitchy overall, but their driving aggressive beats were a crowd-pleaser.

The Gibson Brothers (not everyone in the group is related or named Gibson), started out with the title track from their new CD, "A Red Letter Day," and another hit, Iron and Diamonds White's haunting vocal recalled Lee Roy Parnell, and got the best audience response from their set.

The most anticipated group of the night was easily The SteelDrivers. Recently featured on Conan O'Brian, and nominated for Song of the Year at the IBMA Awards this year, these music vets are quickly becoming popular for their blues-meets-bluegrass sound. Whether playing a small club of a couple hundred or larger venues, they never fail to capture an audience. Chris Stapleton's rough, John Fogerty-esque voice was pristine at this performance, grinding through If It Hadn't Been for Love, Angel Tonight (featuring fiddle player Tammy Rogers' tender harmonies) and Drinkin' Dark Whiskey. They introduced a new song as well, Where Rainbows Never Die, and the song they did on Conan, Blue Side of the Mountain. The audience seemed to love all of it, with The SteelDrivers being the only act to actually make the crowd yell for more.