Words by: Anson Burtch | Images by: Willa Stein
MerleFest :: 04.24.08 – 04.27.08 :: Wilkes Community College :: Wilkesboro, NC
For over two decades, the last weekend in April transforms Wilkesboro, NC into the center of the bluegrass universe. Over 100 of the best Americana artists alive come together to pay tribute to the late Eddie "Merle" Watson, to shake off the winter blues and pick until dawn. This year's acts – on 14 stages over four days - included bluegrass veterans Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and Sam Bush, plus the most creative young bands playing today like Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers and The Infamous Stringdusters.
The Infamous Stringdusters :: MerleFest 2008
The Infamous Stringdusters brought their bluegrass chops and furious picking to the Watson Stage with an early set on Thursday. This talented act from Nashville won both "Emerging Artist" and "Album of the Year" at last year's International Bluegrass Music Association awards. The set pulled from their full repertoire of songs about loving and loosing, especially "Lonesome As It Gets," "No More To Leave You Behind" and a new one, "You Can't Handle the Truth." However, the highlight of the set wasn't musical. Dobro player Andy Hall asked his girlfriend Janice to marry him onstage. (She said yes.)
After stealing last year's festival, the Carolina Chocolate Drops returned with their one-of-a-kind African-American string band music. During their Watson Stage set Friday evening, they brought out mentor Joe Thompson, one of the oldest living fiddle players. Highlights included "Donna Gottta Ramblin' Mind" and "Old Joe Clark." The Chocolate Drops feature a great lineup: Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, lead vocals), Justin Robinson (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (jug, washboard, bones, resonator guitar, banjo, and just about everything else).
One of the new bands making a splash at this year's festival was Bearfoot out of Anchorage, Alaska. The five-piece band features female vocalists on twin fiddles playing hard-driving bluegrass. Despite their youth, they have honed their skills and are tight instrumentally. Their set featured an unusual murder ballad called "Fishtrap Joe" that was similar to Appalachian roots music. Another young band drawing lots of attention was the Pine Leaf Boys. Their Cajun zydeco style was fun and the band consists of electric guitar, accordion, fiddle, drums and bass. Some of their songs were in French. Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band rounds out the trio of new MerleFest bands of note. Shupe has been playing fiddle in Utah for almost ten years. His folk rock sound has some western swing influence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. For example, "Corndogs" is about the merits of the aforementioned food, and "Simplify" may be the only bluegrass rap.
Carolina Chocolate Drops :: MerleFest 2008
Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt played the MerleFest Cabin Stage seven years ago after winning the Chris Austin songwriting contest. Since that day as a fledgling songbird, she's had two critically acclaimed albums and multiple international tours. She returned with her inspiring voice and tons of new songs. Spending about half of her set on guitar and half on piano, her beautiful sound had an easygoing country lilt.
A whirlwind of energy, The Wilders out of Kansas City play country music with raw enthusiasm. It's the kind of hootin' and hollerin' good time music that graced the saloons and taverns of the last century. But, watch this group, they will rock out at a moment's notice and take country to a whole new level with songs like "Honky Tonk Habit."
Thursday night's headliner was Old Crow Medicine Show. An old-time string band with attitude, they meld the ancient sounds of the Appalachian Mountains with foot stompin' energy. A moving new song called "Memphis Hotel Murder" was based on Martin Luther King's assassination 40 years ago. Country star Marty Stuart came out and joined them on guitar for "Down Home Girl." The crowd went wild for their big hit "Wagon Wheel." The encore, the traditional "CC Rider," received a standing ovation.
Old Crow Medicine Show with Marty Stuart :: MerleFest 2008
Sam Bush greeted the crowd with his usual salutation, "Good evening, music lovers!" before a set of his unique bluegrass rock & roll. He opened with a supercharged "Uncle Penn" accompanied by his stellar band. Scott Vestal on banjo displayed fantastic finger work with chromatic scales and lightning fast arpeggios. The drums add a kick to Bush's music, as evidenced by "Bringing in the Georgia Mail." Peter Rowan came out to join the band for "Freedom Walkabout." Gearing up for the election season, Bush covered Randy Newman's "Mr. President (Please Have Pity On The Working Man)." He ended with the traditional "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms," played in anything but a traditional style.
The Avett Brothers hit the main stage Friday night in a much anticipated headline slot and delivered the most memorable set of the festival. The two brothers from North Carolina, Scott and Seth Avett with bass player Bob Crawford play raucous acoustic music on bluegrass instruments infused with a heavy punk vibe. Imagine Black Flag playing Bill Monroe and you are only starting to get the picture. It's very ragged and raw (tuning seemed optional at times), but the roughness around the edges belies the beautiful songwriting that underlies the music. "Paranoia in Bb" and "Shame" from their latest album, Emotionalism, had the already amped crowd singing along with every word. During "Please Pardon Yourself" the energy hit critical mass as hordes of dancers cordoned off to the side rushed the stage. A roar went up and hundreds of others from the lawn came rushing down the aisles past bewildered volunteers to join them. It was the first time the normally placid MerleFest crowd has rushed the stage. When "Pretty Girl from Raleigh" was followed by "Salina," the energy went to a whole new level with the entire crowd now on its feet and stacking chairs to create more dancing room. Scott Avett, looking like Rasputin's twin, jumped behind a drum kit to debut a new song, "My Heart Like A Kick Drum," a poppy number that sounded like mid-sixties rock & roll. An older hit, "November Blue," made a rare appearance, and "Talk On Indolence" ended the set. Perhaps with their future at the festival in mind, the Avetts encored with "Will You Return?" Regardless, when it comes to acoustic music this band is shredding the envelope.
The Avett Brothers :: MerleFest 2008
Saturday night Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder were joined by none other than ivory-tickling genre chameleon Bruce Hornsby. The two forces made for a very tight band. During bluegrass numbers like "Toy Heart" and "Bluegrass Breakdown," Hornsby ripped solos like a regular member of Kentucky Thunder. Hornsby's own material got the bluegrass boogie treatment on "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain." The band had a great time playing together, and Hornsby proved himself comfortable as both a sideman and a bandleader. The set closer was a fantastic, hard-driving version of "Valley Road."
Over on the Hillside Stage, Peter Rowan held court using the very talented Hot Buttered Rum as his backing band. They played a set full of Rowan favorites like "Free Mexican Airforce," but more impressive were the new songs; one by Rowan called "Raven" and one by Hot Buttered Rum called "Honey Be." There was also a hilarious song about tequila with lots of Hank Williams references. Hailing from Northern California, Hot Buttered Rum played a couple of solo sets during the festival as well. They have a fun, newgrass sound with lots of energy and melodic, sing-song vocals. Think Yonder Mountain with a more laidback vibe. They have a strong commitment to being green and were one of the very first bands to travel in a biodiesel bus.
Bush, Rowan, Hinojosa :: MerleFest 2008
With so many stages, you can catch snippets of sets here and there while traveling from one place to another. Ducking into the Walker Center, there was a full-on old time jam in progress with three fiddles sawing away and the entire audience bobbing their heads. Passing by the Watson Stage, Pete Wernick was playing with his Flexigrass band. The name says it all as the band explored the boundaries of acoustic music. Elements of jazz, Latin rhythms and blues sneak into Wernick's music. It's not every day you hear the Earl Scruggs banjo instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" played with a clarinet and a vibraphone! Sierra Hull, a young mandolin prodigy, played her heart out on the Creekside Stage. Her upcoming album, Secrets, promises to be a big coming out party for this very talented lady.
Over on the Americana Stage, Doc Watson had an overflowing crowd mesmerized with his intricate fingerpicking. Even at age 85, Watson can still play with the best of them. A set entitled "Stars In My Crown" featured Watson, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Jorma Kaukonen (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane). The set was an acoustic jam with a jazzy/bluesy feel. Many of the songs were off Kaukonen's latest album, and the guitarists traded breaks, each vying to outdo the other in a friendly but intense competition.
Festival regulars know never to miss The Waybacks. An exciting newgrass band from San Francisco, they are full of surprises. Saturday on the Hillside Stage was billed as "Album Hour with The Waybacks, John Cowan and Friends." Rumors flew around the festival as to what it could be, but were quickly put to rest when Cowan sang the opening notes of "Whole Lotta Love" from Led Zeppelin II. The ensemble proceeded to play the entire album start-to-finish. Rather than a bluegrass version of the album, the group went all out. Lead guitarist James Nash rocked every solo note-for-note, switching his guitar between acoustic and electric settings. It was great to hear the familiar riffs being played on fiddle and banjo as well (by none other than "Dr. Banjo" himself, Pete Wernick). During "Thank You," the delicate keyboard part at the end sounded ethereal and transcendent on a mandolin. Cowan's high range and falsetto were a perfect fit for Robert Plant's vocals. The band was complimented by Wilders fiddle player Betse Ellis and Byron House on keys. "Heartbreaker" and "Moby Dick" were particularly fierce with twin fiddles and Nash rocking out with fully distorted guitar. It was one of the best sets of the entire festival. Check out The Waybacks and John Cowan covering Led Zeppein II from MerleFest right here.
Ralph Stanley & Doc Watson :: MerleFest 2008
On the Creekside Stage, Tim O'Brien played an afternoon set with the Infamous Stringdusters as his backing band. It was an inspired pairing with one of today's premier songwriters and one of the tightest bluegrass bands around. Coincidentally (or maybe not), O'Brien produced their upcoming self-titled album. O'Brien sang a few classics, "Deep Elem Blues" and "99 Years," while the Stringdusters showed their prowess on the Earl Scruggs instrumental "Groundspeed."
Donna the Buffalo is the resident jam band at MerleFest and hosted a Hillside Jam on Saturday. With guests Jim Lauderdale and Scott Vestal, they rocked the crowd with "These Are Better Days" and a howling "Let's Go A-Hunting" with Tim O'Brien on lead vocals. They finished just in time as a huge weather front rolled through with a downpour that briefly knocked out power and lasted about half an hour. While some of the stages took a break from the music, there was still plenty to be found. In the Lounge, pianist Jeff Little played a set in the dark. The Nashville Bluegrass Band played to a capacity crowd in the Walker Center. But, the best place to be was the Expo Tent, where impromptu jam sessions quickly became bands and played old bluegrass numbers to entertain the crowd.
Chris Austin Songwriting Contest
Hundreds of entries are received and judged. Then, the top three songs in each category get to perform at the festival. The crowd attempts to sway the judges by cheering hard for its favorites in MerleFest's version of American Idol. David Myles, winner in the general category, was the crowd favorite. His tune was "When It Comes My Turn," a hilarious tune about dying with a smile on your face.
Tony Rice :: MerleFest 2008
Tony Rice and Peter Rowan
Just old friends picking together on the Cabin Stage in a relaxed set of Rowan standards and a few Rice compositions. Rice excels at mixing smooth jazz licks into bluegrass in a way that's uniquely his.
Still going strong at age 81. While he doesn't play the banjo as much as he used to, the voice that helped create the "high lonesome sound" was in full effect during "Sitting On Top of the World" and other traditional numbers.
Vincent plays the most hard-driving, ass-kicking bluegrass around. She returned to MerleFest and showed why only she has the coveted sponsorship of Martha White Flour (it's a bluegrass thing... Martha White only sponsors the best of the best.)
Harmonizing on the Cabin Stage, this gem from Western Australia played folksy troubadour music complimented by the vocal harmonies from sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson. They were especially impressive with their a cappella numbers and heartfelt story songs.
Levon Helm :: MerleFest 2008
Still rocking strong on the drums, this former member of The Band played a fantastic set with mad blues harmonica and a great rendition of "The Weight."
The Lovell Sisters
The Sisters proved they were the real deal on the Americana Stage. These three incredibly talented sisters on mandolin, fiddle and dobro played confident bluegrass with excellent vocals.
Girls for Merle
All the best female bluegrassers played a set on the Watson Stage. Rhonda Vincent, Sierra Hull, Claire Lynch, Missy Raines, Alison Brown and Sally Van Meter sounded angelic together.
This year's festival MVP was everywhere, hosting the songwriting contest, playing with The Wilders, Infamous Stringdusters and Ralph Stanley.
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