MERLEFEST 2004: AMERICANA AT ITS BEST

Seasoned Artists That Still Rock

Hot off Traveler, his best release in years, Tim O'Brien took the Cabin Stage with fiddle wizard Casey Driessen and played a spirited set. Songs included "Less & Less," "Family History," and "Kelly Joe's Shoes." Pete Wernick made a surprise appearance and they played their old Hot Rize classic, "Climbing up a Mountain." Tim O'Brien continues to add classics to the Americana songbook.


Press Photo
When Bela Fleck signed a five album deal with Sony a few years back, the contract stipulated that two of the albums be released on the Sony Classical label. Teaming up with bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, the pair brought their unique "Chamber Grass" music to Merlefest. Aside from composing rounds and cannons, Meyer bowed his stand-up bass to elicit runs that were in turns sinister, melodic, airy, and dark. With songs titled "Bug Tussle" and "Wooly Mammoth," you get a hint that this isn't typical classical music. Bela was his usual self, displaying lightning fast skills on the banjo and a sense of fun in everything he did.

Gillian Welch is perhaps the best songwriter in the business today, creating brand new music that seems old as the hills. One of her three sets from the weekend contained selections from her new album, including "Look at Miss Ohio," the semi-biographical "No One Knows My Name," and "Wrecking Ball." David Rawlings displayed his passionate, one of a kind lead guitar style on "Red Clay Halo" and "Rock of Ages." Gillian and Dave performed a number of times throughout the weekend, but their best set was on the Austin Stage, with an intimate and attentive crowd.

Long Nashville's top dobro session player, Jerry Douglas has worked on over 1,000 projects. His Main Stage set on Thursday was fantastic, the band backing him adding a full sound to his soaring dobro. The dobro has a range similar to a human voice, and provided the melody line during the instrumental set. He played material off his latest CD Look Out For Hope as well as older albums like Skip, Hop & Wobble, ending the set with a rousing "Patrick Meets the Brickbats." His fiddle player Gabe was sporting the first and only bluegrass mohawk I've ever seen. Leave it to Jerry Douglas to push boundaries.


Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile & Bryan Sutton
Perhaps the three most technically precise musicians at the festival, Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile, and Bryan Sutton put on an mind-blowing display Saturday at the Americana Stage. The music was reminiscent of the jazzy swing era, like Django Reinhart playing in a speakeasy. Mark's fiddle lines constantly played around the beat, keeping things in full swing. And who better to hang with him than mandolin prodigy Chris Thile and flatpicker Bryan Sutton? The crowd overflowed the smaller side stage, and many people without sightlines stayed just to listen. More than once a bystander asked, "What kind of music is this?" These highly original musicians are combining the old with the new, coming full circle. Mark normally tours with the Hot Swing Trio. Check out their albums for a taste of this wildly original music. Without a doubt, this was the set of the day on Saturday.

Perennial Merlefest favorites Donna the Buffalo is an extremely positive band of zydeco-groove musicians that's seemingly been on the road forever. As usual they got a huge crowd response and by the end of their Saturday set had everyone dancing in the aisles. They opened with "Better Days," and later got going with "Funky Side," and included an excellent "Family Picture." Loyal followers (aka The Herd) are plentiful in North Carolina and always show up in huge numbers at Merlefest.


Darol Anger & Mike Marshall
It isn't festival season until Darol Anger and Mike Marshall show up to the party. These two madcap musicians have been exploring and breaking boundaries for years. Playing as The Duo, they traded classical licks and rhythmic chops. With influences from Bach to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this intellectual head music defies categorization. Mike brought out his Mando-cello, an oversized, mandolin with a deep, mysterious sound. The show-stopping finale "Borealis" brought the crowd to its feet.

The Creekside Stage, tucked away behind the Main Stage, is a little slice of acoustic heaven. Playing a set on Friday was the legendary Hot Tuna, featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. These two heads from the '60s San Francisco psychedelic rock scene left all of that behind to focus on their love of blues, country, and more traditional material. Here at the Creekside, they performed "Keep You Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and an old favorite "Hesitation Blues."


Earl Scruggs
The Indigo Girls are back with a new album and renewed energy…not that they ever went anywhere to begin with. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers still have the chemistry and the talent that made them stars in the first place. Their Thursday night set on the Main Stage was brilliant, with songs spanning their entire career. Amy's smoky voice is the perfect counterpoint to Emily's high soprano. Emily switched instruments practically every song, playing guitar, mandolin, and banjo with equal aplomb. Their voices blended in their signature harmonies, creating an enormously large sound for just two people.

Celebrating his 80th birthday, the father of the five string Earl Scruggs played a set with his Family and Friends. The North Carolina native invented the distinctive bluegrass three-finger roll. He played with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys before co-founding the immensely influential group Flatt & Scruggs. Earl played admirably during the set, which featured guest appearances by Bryan Sutton and Doc Watson. They ran through many bluegrass classics including "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Long Black Veil," and the "Ballad of Jed Clampett." While Earl is a living legend, this set was high on sentiment and low on excitement. The crowd enjoyed seeing him, but the performances from the Family and Friends lacked genuine energy and were fairly routine. Earl did have a chance to shine though with a couple of slick instrumentals. Many bluegrass legends have gone "over Jordon," (bluegrass slang for passed away) so it was good to see the likes of Doc and Earl still playing.


Jim Kerwin & Joe Craven of the
David Grisman Quintet
David Grisman, founder of "Dawg," music shows no signs of slowing down. His latest quintet is heavy on the Caribbean jazz and swing influences. They took the stage decked out in bright Hawaiian shirts. With his dark shades and bushy grey beard, the Dawg looked like Santa Claus on vacation. Opening the set was the classic "EMD" from his 1977 self-titled debut album, and the energy stayed constant throughout.

With his first new studio album in five years, King of My World, Sam Bush is back on the road. Not that he needs a reason--the ubiquitous festivarian is practically a given at any major summertime musical gathering. His Friday night set on the Main Stage included "Eight More Miles to Louisville" and "They're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," both staples of his set for a few years now and featured on the new album. The band's lineup has been rotating recently, but for festival energy and the comfort of hearing a familiar set, Sam Bush is king of his world.

Uniquely Merlefest

Friday at Merlefest was the highly competitive banjo contest. When the dust settled, William Parsons of the band Meridian picked up first place and a brand new Earl Scruggs model banjo. Capturing third place was a face familiar to many, Hank Smith of North Carolina-based Barefoot Manner. With traditional material like "Dear Old Dixie" and a highly complex original piece "Nervous Breakdown," Hank’s blazing speed and technical precision wowed the judges. Another Friday feature is the Chris Austin Songwriting contest. Over the years this contest has given a major boost to the careers of the winners. Hopefully it will do the same for the winner of the bluegrass song category, Mike Finders of Iowa City and his song "Adeline."

The Dance Tent is consistently a Merlefest favorite. It is the only place where you are actively encouraged to boogie at the festival. Each session teaches a new dance step and everyone is welcome to join in. The musicians are always excellent and everyone has lots of fun. The Reeltime Travelers were everywhere and played a set at the Dance Tent. Their traditional music served as a soundtrack to the contra lessons where strangers and friends danced arm in arm.


John Cowan
Although they only played a short set on the Cabin Stage between Main Stage acts, the magic of Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and John Cowan shone through. Bela is well know the world over for his avant-garde banjo playing, while Casey is Tim O'Brien's right hand fiddle man these days. John Cowan has a tendency to overdo things, but here was kept in check, and his golden pipes hitting all the high notes. They played just two songs in about 15 minutes, an intricate "Hold To A Dream" seamlessly segueing into "Rose Of Old Kentucky."

The man behind the festival, Americana music legend Doc Watson, is getting on in years, and decided to scale back his performances. Despite his advancing age, he remains the heart and soul of the festival. He did find time to make a guest appearance with Earl Scruggs, and also did sets with his grandson Richard Watson and longtime picking companion Jack Lawrence.

Picture yourself back in middle school and suddenly Bela Fleck arrives to show you a thing or two on the banjo. Or maybe Tony Rice appears to discuss the finer points of bluegrass guitar. Sound like a dream? For Wilkes County students, it's a reality. In recent years Merlefest has sponsored an outreach program where festival artists visit local schools to introduce them to bluegrass and Americana music. The program helps raise musical awareness and has created many new young fans.


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