April 29-May 2
Spring came early this year in the Northeast. Usually the first sign of spring for me is when we head down the Shenandoah Valley going to Wilkesboro, NC for Merlefest. The spring flowers become more prevalent the farther south we get. Because of the early spring, it seemed like Merlefest was happening very late this year. I was sure glad when the last week in April rolled around so we could make our annual pilgrimage to Merlefest.
We got to set up in the RV lot overlooking the campus with our back window providing a terrific view of the scene below. It is always nice to see the same people at the check in spot each year. The volunteers remember familiar faces and those folks if they were distant relatives. And the weather is as nice as the facilities.
The jamming tents on campus Wednesday night had bunches of local musicians playing with people who have come from afar to attend the festival. The musical soup was interesting to experience. In many years the Kruger Brothers, who live in Wilkesboro, come to the Wednesday night jam sessions and play with the many pickers who come a day early for the festival. I suppose that because the Krugers are on the schedule this year to play three sets over the weekend, thye decided to forgo the local jam session. People always looked forward to perhaps getting to play a bit with these great musicians.
Thursday is always a slow starting day. We walked down to the campus to look around and try to identify any WiFi hotspots. We scored as we found a signal provided by Century Com, who is a sponsor of the festival. I had to chuckle as I realized that both my wife and I were sitting under the food tent (for shade from the sun), looking at computer screens, checking email and, in my case, discovering the Capitols completed an amazing choke job in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There were several other networks that were either secured or were associated with the community college’s Guest Network, which required some type of guest authentication. It is just nice to know that you can connect to the outside world if desired.
The first show was scheduled for late Thursday afternoon. The opening act was a band that was new to me. Balsam Ridge is a group of young musicians who appreciate bluegrass music and can play it in a highly skilled and authentic way. Towards the second half of their show they displayed a Jam band like approach to the music featuring great solo work. They even covered David Grisman’s dawg standard, EMD. I look forward to hearing more from this group.
The Belleville Outfit played a nice set of new material on the Watson stage. The material seems to have the band moving away from their wonderful western swing and jazz sound. The set was tame, not what I wanted to hear. Marshall Hood on guitar has noticeably improved his playing immensely since last year.
Thursday evening featured Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Rhonda has bronchitis and was not able to sing very much. She is such a trooper that she did sing several of her more popular songs. The very interesting aspect of this show was that it gave the rest of the band a chance to sing tunes that they seldom get a chance to perform.
After Rhonda Vincent, the Steeldrivers appeared on the Cabin Stage. This was the most shocking thing we saw all weekend. The Steeldrivers did not have Chris Stapleton on guitar and vocals. As many know, the key to the Steeldrivers is Chris’ gravelly voice. Apparently Chris is no longer with the band. They have a new vocalist who sounds a lot like Stapleton with a Muscle Shoals kind of sound, but as they say, ‘he ain’t no Chris Stapleton.’ Needless to say we were very disappointed. The band covered all of their material. They played it well. I would presume if you have never seen the Steeldrivers, you would have thought they were very good. But in contrast to the ‘original’ group, they came up short. The first bummer of the weekend.
Fortunately, the next band up was the Taj Mahal Trio. I have seen Taj many times. He always makes me smile and feel good. Tonight was no exception. For an older gentleman, he sure can shake his booty. The easiness of his flow of music, his selection of great blues tunes, and his demeanor, all contributed to a wonderful experience for everyone in the crowd. He couldn’t have come on at a better time.
The Gibson Brothers played on the Cabin Stage Thursday evening after Taj. The brothers were one of only a few truly bluegrass bands we got to see over the weekend. They are a solid band from northern New York state. I have seen them many times and they have never disappointed me. Tonight was no exception.
The last show of the evening was the Zak Brown Review. The actual show was simply called Zak Brown Band. But Brown has a whole group of musicians that he forced the crowd to listen to before getting to see him. The ‘preliminary review’ bands were not outstanding. The duo Joey and Rory, a husband and wife team, acted as the opening act and as the emcees of the review. Joey could really sing in the traditional Nashville country style, but Rory looked like someone in a time warp thinking he was on Hee Haw with awkwardly fitting bib overalls. The review lasted for what seemed like forever. Eventually Zak Brown Band came on stage. I have to note that Zak played with each of the ‘review’ groups to give their little shows some credibility. Brown’s music was okay. His band has great harmonies. I know he is really hot right now having played at the CMA awards, but his show left me cold. His guitar picking was very fast, but lacked any tone or texture. He was simply loud and fast. I must admit that I left the show after about one hour. I had heard enough. Besides, I could hear the end of the show at the RV.
Friday I went to see Wiley Gustafson and the Wild West. Wiley is a kind of authentic cowboy act. I have seen him before and thought I should give him a chance. But, like last time, it appeared that he was working so hard to put on his little shtick and keep the jokes coming. Some of the music was very nice. But I found his gyrating and wiggling a bit much for my taste. He is a great yodeler. But I just don’t like a rock-star hillbilly show.
The Greencards were good. The interesting thing about the ‘Cards’ was that they made a significant change in personnel with the English guy leaving the group and a new American fiddle player. Jake Stargell, on guitar, was as great as usual. The Australian duo still dominates. Fortunately, the pair are good. The instrumentals were more enjoyable for me than the vocals. Carol is a fine singer making the group vocally oriented. They also played a unique version of Grisman’s EMD. I guess everyone likes EMD and wants to be able to play it for some kind of jazz/bluegrass credibility. Overall the show was a bit too ‘poppy’ for my taste. Typical of this sound was their ‘single’, “On the Avenue.”
Missy Raines and the new Hip were great. I really enjoyed the jazzy feel the band and the extremely high level of musicianship that they display. They played very nice acoustic jazz set which I found relaxing and engaging. I have never been disappointed by Missy and her band and Friday at Merlefest was no exception. I must mention that even Missy has a sort of pop tune on her new album. The tune is called, “It’s a Cold Hard Business.” The band is virtually all instrumental, but on this tune Missy sings lead. I was prepared for this tune because of hearing is a few times on WDVX out of Knoxville. It was great show for a hot Friday afternoon.
I went to see Donna the Buffalo on the big Watson stage. I always like the groove that DTB establishes with every show. Today in the hot sun was no exception. Round Ball, Tides of Time, etc were all great. Jed seemed to be on his game playing wonderful little solos and licks. Tara played great, as usual, looking like something was bothering her. The new keyboard player, David McCracken, is a great addition to the band adding another lead instrument to the mix. In the past the organ was on stage and being played, (I guess), but you couldn’t hear it and there certainly was no lead work coming from the keyboard.
A disappointment for me was the Cadillac Sky show on the Cabin stage. These guys seem to want to emulate the Avett Brothers in stage style and appearance. At one time I would never have thought that this band would end up as Avett wannabees. Several years ago they were a young band looking for an identity. They seem to have found it and I don’t like it. Mike Jump drives me crazy with his rock star, idol to women act. It just doesn’t fit with what is apparently a progressive bluegrass band. They do have some talent in terms of musicianship, but their showmanship is over the top and lousy.
The Waybacks had a tricky time slot playing in the heat of the day under full sun at the big Watson stage. They played their standard, and very good material as always. This group is very entertaining. Ever since the Waybs played with Bob Weir at Merlefest in 2006, the band has been trying to cover at least one GD tune each show. James Nash mentioned that the band has not played ‘this one’ at Merlefest since 2006 (with Bob). Then they kicked in to Saint Stephen. For the next twelve minutes the boys ripped through a rousing version of the seminal Dead tune. They jammed directly into a fascinating version of Richard Thompson’s tune (and Del McCoury hit), “Vincent Black Lightening, 1952.” What was very neat was that the Waybs played a version of the tune that was more true to Thompson’s original version than the Del McCoury version. No reference to Knoxville in this version. This was one of the true highlights of the weekend.
Late in the afternoon, I was able to get over to the Dance Stage to see the Belleville Outfit in the dance hall setting. It was great to get out of the hot sun. What a difference the audience and venue can make. The Outfit was rocking, and swinging like crazy for a big crowd under the bigtop of the Dance stage. Gone were the ‘nice’ tunes and swing was king. Phoebe Hunt sang Baby Bye-Bye at the other venues, but she NEVER sang it like she did under the tent. She was fantastic and seemed to be really enjoying the crowd enjoying her. The band would say every now and then how much they liked this new venue (for them). The energy was fantastic. This was another really excellent moment within the festival.
The first show Friday evening on the Watson stage was Dierks Bentley and the Travelin McCourys. They were great. Better than I expected and I expected a lot. We got to see Dierks with the McCourys at Delfest 2008. He was good that night, but at Merlefest he was really relaxed and off the chart good. Of course the McCourys showed that they are great musicians no matter the context or genre. This show makes me want to see them again. One very interesting observation and topic of discussion in the crowd was Ronnie McCoury’s hair. He apparently used some hair ‘product’ to get his hair to hang down in a more ‘normal’ manner as opposed to the way he (and his dad Del) comb their hair way up and over the top. I heard several people say, “Look at Ronny’s hair!” I can’t wait until mid June when they are coming to State College. (www.thestatetheatre.org)
After the Bentley set, Joey and Rory were on the Cabin Stage. This couple was part of the Zak Brown review the day before. Although Joey is remarkably beautiful with a smile to melt ice, there is something about this talented duo that doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps it is that Joey looks and acts like she is ready to host her own segment at the Grand Old Opry, while her husband looks like he is in the bluegrass comedy act at the Country Tonight Theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Sam Bush Band followed on the Watson stage. Thankfully. His set was wonderful like we have come to expect. He featured the material from his new album including the jam piece, Blue Mountain. He played the ballads from the album including the title track, “Circles Around Me,” and the “Ballad of String Bean and Estelle.” The time always flies when Sammy is playing. Maybe Sam will be sitting in with his friends, Little Feat coming up later.
Before Little Feat, the Lovell Sisters did a short set on the Cabin Stage. The oldest of the Lovell Sisters, Jessica, is going to College and also is engaged. She has left the band which is to now be called Larkin Poe. The two remaining sisters on Mandolin and Dobro, do all of the new configuration’s singing. The new band includes an electric guitar, base, and drums. The sound was interesting and not what I remembered from years ago at Greyfox when I first saw the family. I’d say the jury is still out on whether the new band is as good as it can be.
Little Feat , started very slow and built momentum with their classic, “Fat Man in a Bathtub.” The set really picked up speed when they brought Sam Bush out, (as we hoped) to play with the band. Sam played a couple tunes with then band before they broke into an explanation about how they normally have played “Sailin’ Shoes” slow, and then learned of Sam playing it fast. When Paul Barrere said, “oh ya’ll know the story we’ll just play the damned thing” they broke into the real slow version just like on the album. Then they switched into the arrangement that Sam Bush has been playing for years within his shows. The thing rocked. Sammy Rocked. Little Feat Rocked. What started as a bit slow and tentative was turning into a Little Feat concert. Fred Tackett sang Willin, the Lowell George anthem which Linda Ronstadt made famous which eventually turned into the Jamaican National Anthem, Dylan’s “Don’t Bogart That Joint My Friend” which the crowd helped to sing. The tune evolved into “Long Black Veil” which then turned into the Band’s “The Weight”. The tune circled back to “Willin” for the finish. This was one of those wonderful moments that sometimes happen at these festivals. Seeing Little Feat being Little Feat was exciting. Warren Hood from the Waybs along with Tara from DTB came out following Sam Bush and played with the band when they ripped up “Dixie Chicken.” They encored with another great Feat tune, “Oh Atlanta.” What a show. What a night at Merlefest.
Saturday morning Steep Canyon Rangers played at the Hillside stage. It was a nice set with some very good new material. This would be the only occasion I would get to see the Rangers doing their own material. They were going to back up Steve Martin later that evening.
I went to see the Travelin McCourys at the Creekside stage. They were very good again. I went to see them because this would be the only set which this very flexible band would be playing simply as the Travelin McCoury’s. They already had played with Dierks Bentley and were going to back the Lee Boys on Sunday. They were more like with the Del McCoury Band playing unplugged and using some of the Del repertoire like Ronny’s version of the Hoyt Axton classic, “Angelina.”
Bearfoot at the Walker Center was very good. Odessa Jorgensen is a great singer, fiddler and overall presence with this band. The tunes are really nice too. The big surprise was to see Sam Grisman, (yeah, David Grisman’s son), playing bass for Bearfoot. I wonder if he is still playing with Sarah Jarosz?
Shannon Whitworth at the Cabin was nice, soft and relaxing for the heat of the day
Tony Rice Unit was great as usual. I would have liked to see Josh Williams featured more both playing the mandolin and singing. Overall, another solid show from Tony. Tony looked reasonably well and certainly seemed to enjoy the adulation he received from his fellow North Carolinians.
Next it was up to the hillside to stake out a spot for the Album Hour which was coming up in another hour. The hillside was packed but we got a good spot and sat down to wait for the big show. Great Big Sea was performing on the Hillside Stage. They’re from Newfoundland. I did not care for their bits of musical gimmickry like getting the crowd to sing lyrics of pop tunes. I did not hear enough scotch-Irish type music to suit me. I expected more Irish-Scotch fiddle tunes.
The album hour was, “Abbey Road.” Wow. It was just great fun. The music was re-created fairly accurately, the instrumentation was different with a banjo (Jens Kruger), fiddle (Warren Haynes), dobro (Jerry Douglas), and the Waybacks. The vocalists rotated between Sarah Dugas from the Duhks and Shannon Whitworth. Jim Lauderdale, James Nash, and even Elvis Costello sang a tune or two. Dugas was the big star with the incredible voice. She could and did belt it out from the opening notes of “Come Together” to the end. A star was born. What an hour. Well worth the wait. The huge crowd certainly loved what they saw.
Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers performed in the premo spot of 8PM on Saturday. The show was interesting because we knew Steve Martin could really play the banjo. He also has written some really nice tunes. Martin grew up with John McEuen, from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They both learned to play banjo at the same time. The thing that surprised me was that this was a full on Steve Martin show with the jokes, one liners and silly interplay with the Steep Canyon boys. Speaking of the Steep Canyon Rangers, they were superb backing up Martin providing the fine bluegrass sound and not getting in the way of the Martin banjo playing. They did have to bear the brunt of some of Steve’s jokes. I imagine the Steep Canyon boys learned a whole bunch during this tour. Unfortunately, Martin finished with a version of “King Tut,” which I did not really appreciate. My son, who is 25, was thoroughly confused by this tune since he wasn’t around when Martin was originally doing this novelty tune. Overall, I really enjoyed this very intersting and actually somethat complicated show.
Elvis Costello and the Hurricanes was a very good show with a great band. They played a mix of old and new Costello tunes and a few American classics such as Friend of the Devil. The crowd loved them. I liked him too, but I was not blown away by the set.
Sunday morning at the Hillside stage was a very nice change in that the atmosphere was laid back and there was a lot of shade on the hillside seating area. I got to see the Wilders who were featuring their gospel material. I like the Wilders, but I like them when they are playing their unique brand of turbo old timey. Still, the set was relaxing, well done, and appropriate for Sunday morning.
After lunch we went to the big Watson Stage for the rest of the day. We first got to see the Lee Boys with the Travelin McCourys. This is the third time that the McCourys were featured this year. This time they were playing with a ‘Steel Gospel’ group. The McCourys and Lee Boys put out an EP titled Meeting Half Way.’ If you have never seen the Lee Boys, they rock. Literally they rock out with a loud lead steel guitar and a driving drum beat. This band takes gospel to a new level, perhaps to the heavens. The McCourys with their acoustic instruments were able to enhance the total rollicking sound. In particular, Jason Carter wailed on the fiddle and did some neat interplay with the steel guitar. If you have not seen the Lee Boys, I highly recommend the experience. It is an experience.
On the Cabin Stage we next got to see a small regional group from West Virginia called Red Molly. This group was nice with some fine female vocals. I was pleasantly surprised by this little show.
The new group, W.P.A. came next on the big stage. This group is comprised of Sean Watkins, formerly from Nickel Creek, Luke Bulla, and Glen Phillips from Toad the Wet Sprocket. I was curious to see what the sound was going to be. I have always like Luke Bula’s work. Sean is a bit more difficult to judge in that Thile always managed to drown him out when with Nickel Creek. Unfortunately, the music did not flow. It was a bit too edgy and too pop oriented for my taste. I guess I’ll pass on these guys next time.
Shannon Whitworth got the premo spot on the Cabin Stage just before the headlining Avett Brothers. We all knew the Avetts were going to jump around. The energy in the seating area was palpable. So what did Whitworth do? She played a slow uninspired set of ballads that left everyone in the crowd bored and wanting the Avetts to come on stage.
Finally, it was actually time for the Avetts. The crowd was enormous. Perhaps the largest crowd I have seen at the Watson stage since the Dolly Parton show several years back. The crowd seemed to have morphed from a 40-60 year old group to one consisting of high school and College aged kids (mostly girls). I got the feeling that there was a dress code of pony tails, oversized sun glasses, and tight little tank tops. The scenery was okay.
It turns out that these kids adored the Avetts. Many knew all of the words to most of their material. I have seen these guys four times and have not yet been able to stay through the whole show. I keep trying to like these guys. I can see the talent, but just can’t get involved with the music. This show seemed to feature more slow ballads than in previous shows I have seen where they featured a line or two of lyrics then a lot of thrashing and jumping around while pounding their guitar and banjo. The cello player is weird. Still, this band is talented and has a huge following. Something is going on here that I don’t see. Oh, I didn’t make it to the end of this show either. I lasted about 45 minutes.
So this is how the weekend concluded. We walked back to the RV listening to the Avetts finish their set. It was supper, sleep, and then the trip back to Pennsylvania. Lots of great memories. Lots of great music. I also got to spend some time with my son who lives in Winston-Salem. A great trip all around. Two weeks until the Bromberg Noise Festival. I can’t wait.