The first festival of the year is always exciting. The long stretch of anticipation is just about over. This is when we check the lists and gather the stuff we need to make the long trek to Wilkesboro, NC for the 22nd annual Merlefest. Merlefest is the biggest and best festival I have ever attended. This show has over 100 acts that appear over four days spread across 14 stages.
As usual, we rented an RV near Wilkesboro to reduce travel costs. The RV is useful at Merlefest. At Merlefest, you can park your RV on campus. The event is completely on the Wilkes Community College campus. There are no other ways to avoid using shuttle buses to go to and from your camping area or your car. The RV affords the opportunity to get away from the heat, cold, noise, whatever, and just rest without ever leaving the festival.
Central Pennsylvania to Wilkesboro takes about nine hours including RV transition time. It takes about an hour to set up and cook the evening meal. In the past few years we have evolved to preparing food at home and use the microwave and cooking less in the RV.
Wednesday evening is technically the evening before the festival. However, it is the evening when the local Wilkes Acoustic Music Society sponsors jamming on campus at the “Jam Tents.” Gwen and I went to the jam and found three or four groups playing acoustic music. One group was a bit larger and a closer look found the Kruger Brothers were among the folks playing just like everyone else. The Kruger’s were great. They encouraged others to participate and created an inclusive environment. If the quality of the little Kruger’s jam was any indication, it is going to be a good Merlefest this year.
The Merlefest acts are announced in the late fall and the full festival schedule by stage is available in mid-winter. Working on the schedule in advance is a wintertime activity. However, when you get to the show and get into the swing of the actual schedule, one tends to re-pick who you are going to see sometimes. I have found that even though I prepare the schedule in advance, I always go to shows that I never planned on seeing. This year was no exception.
Merlefest formally begins on the Watson Stage at 3PM Thursday afternoon. Because of the late Thursday start, we always have time to explore the campus a bit before the music starts. This year’s Merlefest program includes a map of the festival grounds showing the stages, etc. The map included marking the locations of Wi-Fi hot spots. Thursday morning we went on campus with my computer to ‘test’ the wireless. I was pleased to find that there was adequate signal for wireless connectivity. Gwen and I sat at the food court tents around 10:30 Thursday to use the computer while out of the direct sunlight. Sitting there, we heard the stage hands doing some sound checking. After a while the sound checking started to sound very good. I walked up to the big Watson stage to discover that Travis Tritt and Jerry Douglas were doing the check. They must have played four or five tunes. Very nice. What a great way to start out the festival. Gwen sat at the food court emailing her friends about listening to Travis Tritt as she typed! I knew it was going to be a great festival.
We planned on meeting our son, Tyler, who lives in Winston-Salem. Since he lived so close by he was going to spend the weekend with us on campus in the RV. It was the first time we had seen him since Christmas. He plays the mandolin, so Gwen is always pleased to see her son and have a great jamming partner.
We were in our regular Watson seats for the first afternoon of shows. Scythian was first up with their somewhat boring brand of high velocity fiddle, playing eastern European dance tunes like Hava Nagila. Things got much better when Bearfoot, a young ban from Anchorage, Alaska played. They are a female vocals-based band with three women and a couple of guys. They have a new fiddler, Odessa Jorgenson, who used to play with the Biscuit Burners. She did a lot of the singing for the band. And she looked great doing it, too. In the evening, we saw the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band with George Shuffler, Jody Stecher, and Keith Little — disappointing, mostly the same old Peter. Of course he did the obligatory Navajo. I always enjoy this, especially if the little jam in the middle is compelling. For me, this new band is old news. The new super group, Dailey and Vincent, got a Thursday featured spot on the schedule and were terrific. These guys are very talented. Most folks know that Jamie Dailey was with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Darrin Vincent comes from Rickey Skaggs’ band. Oh, yeah, Darrin is Rhonda Vincent’s brother. While their music is world class, their brand of comedy is wearing. There were just too many silly little jokes — particularly about Vincent’s size. A lot of this music is gospel in nature, but even if you do not have the religious zeal that Daley exhibits, this group is a must see.
We got to see Tift Merritt, who is one of my buddy Jay’s fantasies (go figure). While she is probably a very talented singer, she was mostly boring for me. Many in the crowd loved her. Thursday headliners, Travis Tritt and Jerry Douglas were great. The only problem was that Travis liked to talk too much, which sometimes got in the way of the flow of the music. On person who was backstage during the performance told me that there were two cups on stage beside Travis and only one of them was water. Travis did get more ‘chatty’ as the show went on. However, these guys sure made a big sound for just two instruments!
One of the little secrets to enjoying the festival is knowing there is a shower located in the Student Union Building. This used to be more heavily used when more people stayed on campus in RVs. Since the festival more than doubled the cost to part RVs, there is less demand for the showers. I managed to get to the showers Friday morning by about 8AM. There was nobody around, no lines. I feel great.
Early Friday afternoon at the Hillside Stage, we got to Missy Raines and the New Hip (yes, she had her hip replaced before this band was formed). Missy is the former bass player for the Frontporch String Band, Claire Lynch Band, and partnered with guitarist, Jim Hurst . Her show was music I really like. They play highly technical acoustic jazz or Americana. Missy did sing a couple tunes. The band was a bunch of terrific young pickers, all under 25 years old. Spring Creek Bluegrass Band played their version of very straight ahead bluegrass next. I prefer more adventurous music. Finally we got to see the the Dixie Bee Liners. The Bee Liners, from Abington, VA, were very good. Great banjo and female vocal harmonies. The Bee Liners seemed to me to fall victim to an aggressive MC and a tight music schedule. They had apparently not seen the five minute warning from anyone so they were continuing through their set list just finishing a song when the MC came on stage, a thanked the band, asked for a round of applause and shooed them off the stage. The group looked shocked, maybe disappointed. They seemed to get no warning and were unable to play what would normally be their last, (and maybe their best), tune. The show went on. There were other shows for everybody to see.
Ollabelle played on the Watson stage. This is a great band with a bit too much religion. Amy Helm on mandolin and lead vocals (yes, the daughter of Levon Helm), and stand-in Martha Scanlon singing harmony sang really well with nice harmonies. I just found that I liked this group less than the first time I saw them last year.
At one point in the afternoon, there was no particular show that I wanted to see. I had 20 minutes and decided to wander to the Americana stage where I could catch a few Steeldrivers tunes, like ‘Midnight Train to Memphis’. I really like the Steeldrivers. I got to hear my four favorite songs right away. What good luck. The rest of the afternoon I got to see Bearfoot again and saw Cadillac Sky. Cadillac Sky has grown so much both physically and musically. A few years back this group was chosen to play at the Merlefest teen dance. Now they are on par with the best that Americana music has to offer. They have figured out how to play traditional music and work in some extended playing to boot.
We always have to decide who to miss in order to fit in meals. Friday supper caused us to miss the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice show. We were really fortunate that the rain hit the festival while we were eating supper. Rain sure made the food taste better! Glad I wasn’t out on the lawn somewhere.
The first show after dinner was the Del McCoury Band. We got to our seats only to find everything was shut down. There was a delay because of lightning in the area. After about a 20 minute delay, Del and Boys played their set. They were might fine as always. I got a kick out of Del promoting his new festival, DelFest. Del talked to the crowd about the festival, but never mentioned the date or location of the event. After the band played another tune, (and Ronnie whispered into Del’s ear), Del mentioned to the crowd that, “(I) never said where the show was.” Del went over his festival again adding in the date and location for everyone. For the record, DelFest is a four day festival every Memorial Day weekend in Cumberland, MD.
Got to see blues guitariist, Rory Block at the Cabin stage. The cabin porch with its intimacy makes it a great venue for solo acoustic acts. Nigh time makes it even better. Rory played a few Robert Johnson and Son House tunes. Very authentic and very good. Her set was shorted because of the time lost to lightning. The final show of Friday night on the Watson stage was the Waybacks. They are always good, playing an interesting mix of material. Today was no exception. The Waybs played a few tunes and then invited out Jens Kruger, Phoebe Hunt from the Belleville Outfit, Rob Ickes from Blue Highway John Cowan, Byron House, and Sam Bush. This super group launched into Led Zepellin’s Kashmir. I always smile when something like this happens. A little bluegrass secret is that when it gets dark at a festival, rock and roll happens. An was this ever rock and roll. In the middle of the tune, the band transitioned into Roy Orbison’s “She’s Crying” an then eventually got back to Kashmir. I didn’t think they could do anything to top that. But the Waybacks went to their own big finisher, “Bright Place.” It was great. A nice way to end the evening of shows.
Back at the RV, my Gwen and Tyler decided it was time to jam. So the banjo and mandolin were out and being played. The neat thing about Merlefest is that a lot of people come to listen and play. There was a Canadian band from northern Alberta camping nearby. They heard the music and came to ask if my wife and son would like to come play with their band. Of course they did. These guys actually flew from northern Alberta to Cleveland where they rented an RV and drove to Merlefest. I know these guys love the music.
I needed sleep. I was sunburned and I knew Saturday would be a long day. So of course I was sleeping when they got back to the RV for the night. It had to have been late.
Slept in because I knew I had to get lots of rest. We had tickets to the Midnight Jam Saturday night meaning a very long day. My first show was the Greencards. They were very good. I was particularly pleased to see that Jake Stargell is still the guitar player for this Australian/English band. He got the largest round of applause of the show when he played his extended rocking guitar solos. Jake used to play guitar for the Lovell Sisters. He didn’t seem to be appreciated in that band. He has added so much to the Greencards. One warning sign I noticed was that the music they played from a new album was not nearly as compelling as their older music. The new stuff tends to be more easy listening or pop with an emphasis on the female vocals. It is odd that a few years back I did not like the Greencards. Then they added Stargell and I loved them. Now I hope they don’t go all the way to the pop sound. One of the highlights of the Greencards set was when Sam bush came out to play with them on a very fast bluegrass tune. Sam fit right in and played his usual screaming mandolin at warp speeds. He made the band soar. It was really great. You could tell how honored they were to have Sammy share the stage with them.
I normally do not visit the Creekside stage because it is at the far end of the campus. It takes a lot of time to get there and then get back to the center of campus for another show. The Belleville Outfit was worthy of the trip to the Creekside stage. They were fine. Phoebe Hunt, the fiddler, is a wonderful western swing style vocalist playing among some talented young musicians. I enjoyed everything they did. Great playing to go with really nice vocals and harmonies. A little sidebar is that the guitarist in this band is Marshall Hood, who is a cousin of Warren Hood from the Waybacks.
Going from one end of the campus to the other, I definitely wanted to see what David Bromberg would do at the Hillside stage. This stage has space for more people than any other except the Watson stage. The hill was beginning to fill up with all of the shady spots already taken. Of course the Album Hour was coming up next, so many were getting there early to be ready for the Waybacks’ big show. Anyway, David Bromberg played a nice set. I am never fully satisfied with David when he is playing with his Quartet. Bromberg is world class when he is with his big band. David played a fairly representative set doing some bluegrass and some blues. He sang a sweet version of “Nobodys” during his show.
Next up on the Hillside was the Waybacks “Album Hour.” There was tremendous excitement and anticipation throughout the huge crowd that had gathered on the hillside. Nobody knew what album the Waybs would cover this. Last year they did Led Zeppelin II. During the sound check the boys played little snippets of interesting stuff like the Who, the Doors, etc. The Waybacks had a few guests for the show. The same fellows who played with them last night were all on stage. Cowan, Bush, Ickes, House, and one new singer, Emmy Lou Harris. At the stroke of 5PM the boys broke into Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. This meant that the Album Hour was going to be “Sticky Fingers.” And so it went with the Waybs and friends playing every cut on the album through ‘Dead Flowers,’ and finished with ‘Midnight Mile. Emmy Lou sang lead on ‘Wild Horses’. Cowan sang the rest. Oh, the crowd was amazing. Not a space anywhere on the hill. I wondered if anyone was at any of the other venues having simultaneous shows. And it is a good thing it did not rain; the hill would have been a slippery mess because of all the traffic wearing down the grass.
After dinner we made it to the Watson stage to hear Pat Donahue (from A Prairie Home Companion). What we really were looking forward to were the next three shows, Emmy Lou Harris, David Bromberg (this time on the cabin stage), and Sam Bush Band to finish up the night.
Emmy Lou had a small band which featured Ricky Simpkins (of Tony Rice Unit and Seldom Scene) on mandolin, fiddle, and vocals. Emmy Lou was about as relaxed as I have ever seen her. She did not appear to be working. She was having such a good time. Of course she had her buddy Sam Bush come out to finish up her set including a very fine rendition of Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan’s “Walls of Time.”
Bromberg on the Cabin stage was a nice opportunity to play something from his solo repertoire. Instead he disappointed my by repeating Dark Hollow from the afternoon set. He really surprised me doing a really nice instrumental version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He finished his short set with a rousing version of ‘I Will Not Be Your Fool.’ He rambled through his long list of how long it would be, hit the final phrase, “Before I will be Your fool!” And he turned and walked into the cabin itself.The crowd didn’t know what to do so they stood and cheered. David did well. Better than his earlier set at the Hillside stage.
Sam Bush Band was the last show of the evening. Jumping right into his set playing loud and long, Sam opened with ‘River Take Me, then ripped through ‘Mahavishnu Mountain Boys’. They did a 16 minute extended jam on Sapporo. It was intense and fine as usual. The only bluegrass tune they did was Uncle Pen. And he played that at the very end as an encore. Typically encores are not allowed at Merlefest. But since it was the last show and it was Sam Bush, the encore was encouraged. Scott Vestal, Sam’s banjo player, was playing with the band for the first time in several weeks. His wife had given birth to a new baby and he had taken some time off. Also, in a new development for Merlefest, the stage announcer encouraged folks who did not have reserved seats to come up front and sit in unoccupied seats to get close to the music. A very nice unexpected gesture.
Sam finished up around 11:30, leaving us a little time to recharge at the RV before the Midnight Jam. Getting to the Jam about 15 minutes late, We barely caught the Steeldrivers playing with other musicians. Whenever Chris Stapleton sings, the song sounds great! The thing about the Midnight Jam is that there is potential for something great to happen, and it sometimes does, and most of the time it doesn’t. And after about 12 hours of shows during the day, you start to get tired. Women from Bearfoot, Ollabelle, Beeliners, and probably others made great music with wonderful harmonies. The rest of the show was a blur resulting in my realizing that I should go back to get some sleep. I always promise myself that next year we will not purchase the Midnight Jam tickets. I have made the promise again.
Too hot. 85 degrees and full sun. Got to see Sierra Hull and Highway 101. She’s grownup a lot. She can really play intricate stuff, but her singing leaves me short. She has a nice voice, but I prefer blood on fingers over singing anytime. After lunch and some rest the Lovell Sisters were on the Americana stage. They are really good. But something about them is too much. The Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Watson was a fine show. But the heat won out again and we had to retreat to the shade for a while. Beausoleil avec Michael Ducet was really good. Their Cajun style music was perfect for a hot Sunday afternoon. They sounded good at the Dance stage Saturday night when we walked by too. Scheduled for the last Cabin stage show, a coveted spot, was Martha Scanlon. She is very good, but she was slow today and very monotone when she spoke. I was falling asleep. Finally it was time for Linda Ronstadt performing Cancionies de me Padre (Songs of my Father). All the vocals were in Spanish. She had an incredible Mariachi band, Campano de Nati. The violins and the trumpets were amazing. The dances are wonderful as were the costumes. Pretty much what I expected, except that the Mariachi band was even better than I could have imagined.
Early in the Ronstadt set, many of the patrons got up and left. It seemed as though they thought they were going to hear Blue Bayou or something. When it became apparent that this was truly a Mexican music show, they took the opportunity to beat the crowd to the shuttle buses. Still, thousands stayed to see this wonderful show. Check out YouTube to see a large portion of Linda’s show.
It was a sad feeling to have seen the last show of the festival. Back to the RV for packing and sleep. Virginia to traverse tomorrow. We had another good time, another Merlefest in the books. One side note: I figure, unofficially, that Sam Bush played with seven different groups: The Waybacks, The Greencards, Doc Watson, Emmy Lou Harris, David Bromberg, Mando Mania, and the Sam Bush Band. There probably were more.
DelFest in a few weeks.