Words by Anson Burtch :: Images by Willa Stein & Gabe Nelson
Merlefest :: 04.27 - 04.30 :: Wilkesboro, NC
April 27 - 30, the best musicians in Bluegrass and Americana music descended upon Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the 19th-annual Merlefest. Started by guitar-picking legend Doc Watson in honor of his son Merle, the festival has grown into the largest and most prominent gathering of the genre's artists and fans. The stars must have been in alignment, because this year's festival ranks as one of the best ever. Maybe it was the absolutely perfect weather all weekend (a first). Or maybe it was the lineup of major artists such as Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Hot Tuna, Doc Watson, and Tony Rice. It also could have been the incredibly talented newcomers such as The Steep Canyon Rangers, The Duhks, Chatham County Line, and The Mammals. But if you ask many fans, they would have told you it was The Waybacks with Bob Weir.
Doc Watson :: Merlefest 2006 by Willa Stein
San Francisco's favorite jamgrass band has been making a name for itself with a unique brand of boogie. With acoustic instruments, The Waybacks meld folk-rock, newgrass, pop, and even a psychedelic jam or two. Friday night on the main stage, the group, along with Bob Weir, performed an inspired set, playing "Jack Straw" and a couple of crowd-pleasing covers, "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "19th Nervous Breakdown." Later in the set, people were looking at each other in disbelief. Was that "St. Stephen" > "The Eleven" > "Last Time" they just heard? At Merlefest? Indeed it was. With all the attention on Bob Weir, it would be a shame to overlook the talented Waybacks. Multi-instrumentalist Warren Hood was excellent, blazing fiddle lines around the rest of the band. The set had everyone on their feet and dancing, a rarity on the main stage.
Bob Weir :: Merlefest 2006 by Willa Stein
But the highlight of the weekend was the Waybacks' extended Hillside Stage set Saturday evening. The 45 minutes that were scheduled turned into almost two hours of jamming. They hooked the crowd with a couple of tracks from their new album, From the Pasture to the Future. Then Weir joined the band for "El Paso" followed by Sam Bush for "Kazmir" and "Brown-Eyed Women." The crowd cheered Gillian Welch and David Rawling's appearance for "The Weight" and "Brokedown Palace." The crowd refused to let the band leave, pushing the set long past its official time, and everyone returned for a raucous "Like a Rolling Stone." For his magical playing at the festival and many guest spots throughout the weekend, Bob Weir earns the title of Merlefest MVP.
North Carolina has produced some of the most talented names in bluegrass. That list will continue to grow with the emergence of The Steep Canyon Rangers. Originating in Chapel Hill and now hailing from the Asheville/Brevard area, the band plays hard-driving traditional bluegrass with tight instrumental arrangements, scorching solos, and four-part vocal harmonies. Banjo player Graham Sharp writes much of the band's material and picks a mean five-string. Lead singer/guitar player Woody Platt has a rich lead voice reminiscent of a young Tony Rice. Classically trained fiddle player Nicky Sanders started out playing Bach but now rips bluegrass solos like Vassar Clements. Refreshingly, the vast majority of the band's repertoire is original. This was Steep Canyon's debut at Merlefest, and their 9:30 a.m. slot on the Hillside Stage drew a great crowd despite the early hour. They played material from their latest album, One Dime at a Time, as well as new songs such as "If I Could Make a Living Loving Pretty Women." An afternoon set on the Americana stage also drew huge crowds. With their album climbing the charts and popular festival appearances, this group is taking the bluegrass world by storm.
Steep Canyon Rangers :: Merlefest 2006 by Willa Stein
Another North Carolina band with a huge debut at Merlefest was Chatham County Line. This tremendously exciting band plays bluegrass with a decidedly old-time bent. They have raw foot-stompin' tunes and a high lonesome vocal. They played "Breakman's Blues," a Jimmy Rogers cover. The song and Chatham County's sound harkens back to an era when bluegrass was considered real country music. Guitar player/lead singer Dave Wilson writes songs that vividly bring to life rural back roads and lonesome heartache. "Waiting in Paradise" was a gospel-style number with fantastic vocals.
Chatham County Line :: Merlefest 2006 by Gabe Nelson
The Biscuit Burners hit the Americana stage on Friday and immediately had the entire audience under their spell. The band plays very melodic, pretty bluegrass, and multi-instrumentalist Shannon Whitworth writes much of their original music. They have tender songs that will make your heart ache, but they can also cook one down, especially when Dobro player Bill Cardine cuts loose.
Two North Carolina brothers dropped out of their rock band, picked up acoustic instruments, and launched a new career with exciting and hilarious, yet poignant music. The Avett Brothers' approach is almost punkgrass - Black Flag meets Bill Monroe - but that wouldn't do justice to their transcendent songwriting. Friday, the Avetts took to the Hillside Stage dressed in black with wild unkempt hair and bushy beards. Raging like a Category 5 hurricane, the brothers and bass player Bob Crawford ripped through "Love Like The Movies," "A Talk on Indolence," and "Signs," among others. The over/under on this band breaking strings usually hovers around four per show. When you flail away at an instrument like these two, it's no wonder they often tune while playing. Sometimes they sing, sometimes it's more like harmonized shouting, but it's always honest and pure. Even the raw delivery can't overshadow the poetic songwriting talents of this band. "Famous Flower of Manhattan" and "The Lowering (A Sad Day In Greenvilletown)," both from their new album Fourth Thieves Gone, are beautiful and melodic. The crowd gave them a standing ovation, and the brothers returned to play "Swept Away" for the encore. This band is producing the most unique and exciting music in Americana today.
The Avett Brothers :: Merlefest 2006 by Willa Stein
After stealing the festival last year, The Duhks returned to Merlefest with legions of fans showing up for every set. "Contemporary acoustic music" isn't descriptive enough for this Canadian band. With elements of Cape Breton and Irish fiddle music, Appalachian mountain music, and a heavy dose of high-energy folk-rock, The Duhks are a creative force. Lead singer Jessica Havey sings with a passionate voice, and guitar player Jordan McConnell plays with speed and agility. Their sets are a mix of original material and traditional songs albeit with a decidedly modern interpretation. They had the dance tent bursting at the seams. The Duhks have a partner in crime in The Mammals. This experimental folk band from upstate New York is not afraid to push musical boundaries. They made their official Merlefest debut this year. Ruth Ungar's soulful fiddle complements Tao Rodriguez-Seeger's excellent songwriting. Don't miss them on tour.
The Duhks :: Merlefest by G. Nelson
Recent efforts by the schedulers to spread out the big-named artists have made it so every night of the festival is essential. Thursday night featured the legendary John Prine. Prine hasn't lost a bit of the slow drawl or understated wit that made him famous. The set started acoustically with two of his best songs, "Paradise" (aka Muhlenberg County) and "Angel from Montgomery." Later, the backing band came in and joined him on "Lake Marie" and a few songs from his latest album, Fair & Square. Prine's moving songwriting sums up a world of emotions in a few well-timed words. His seemingly simple style belies the complex depth of feeling conveyed in every one of his songs. A spectacular shooting star streaked across the sky during the set.
John Prine :: Merlefest 2006 by Willa Stein
After a few years absence, it was great to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings back at Merlefest. Their Friday set on the main stage saw Welch playing a lot of banjo and some songs from her latest album such as "Look at Miss Ohio" and "No One Knows My Name." Emmylou Harris joined the duo for "Elvis Presley Blues." Welch and Rawlings write songs that feel like they are a hundred years old with haunting harmonies and spare instrumentation. One particular new song, "Throw Me a Rope," is as eerie as it is beautiful. Their Saturday show packed the Creekside Stage until the little hollow overflowed with people. That set included "Wichita," "One More Dollar," and "By the Mark." David Rawlings' inimitable lead guitar lines draw you into a trance with uncanny timing and phrasing, and he was sporting a new Fu Manchu-style mustache. The pair sang "Long Black Veil" with incredible harmony. They are among the most respected songwriters in Americana music, and it's safe to say that Welch and Rawlings are legends in their own time.
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings :: by W. Stein
Speaking of legendary, Hot Tuna took to the Watson stage Friday afternoon for a mellow set of country blues. Even while flying high in the seminal psychedelic San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady stayed true to their folk roots. They would often play acoustic sets in small clubs after Airplane shows. Today, they are still pickin' and grinnin' while playing "How Long Blues," "San Francisco Bay Blues," and a crowd-pleasing "I Know You Rider."
Hot Tuna :: Merlefest by Gabe Nelson
What would Merlefest be without Sam Bush? He has revived his lineup and his music. The band has new energy and plays more like a collection of rock stars than bluegrass pickers. They rocked out the John Hartford song "Goodle Days" and the Darrell Scott song "River Take Me." The highlight was Emmylou Harris coming out to join him for "Sitting on Top of the World." The two of them were obviously having fun, dancing like teenagers on stage.
Sam Bush :: Merlefest by W. Stein
Saturday night on the main stage featured a set from Nickel Creek. Technically this band is at the top of their game. Chris Thile's mandolin fireworks, guitar player Sean Watkins' complex solos, and Sara Watkins' fiddle breaks are astounding. They ran through "When in Rome," "Scotch and Chocolate," and a very strange song pointing out the shortcomings of the vertically challenged. Their recent material has drifted away from the melodic pop hooks that made their first self-titled album such a smash success. Thus the crowd perked up quite a bit when they played their early material, "When You Come Back Down" and "Ode to a Butterfly." The end of the set featured "The Fox" > "The Weight" > "The Fox." "The Weight" won the award for most-played song this year at the festival. Nickel Creek also covered the Britney Spears song "Toxic," unleashing the song on an unsuspecting bluegrass crowd.
An artist who seems to get better with age, Emmylou Harris was a hit on the Watson Stage Sunday night. A big surprise was her band - John Starling, Mike Aldridge, and Tom Grey - all former members of the Seldom Scene. With such a top-notch lineup that also included Jimmy Gaudreau and Ricky Simpkins, the band tore through a number of popular covers and Harris originals. Her voice really shined through on "Poncho and Lefty." The band played excellently on "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Green Pastures." Gillian Welch and David Rawlings came out and joined Harris for "Long Journey Home." Harris, who has a long and distinguished recording career, has a brand new album out with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame.
Emmylou Harris :: Merlefest 2006 by Gabe Nelson