MerleFest :: 04.24.08 – 04.27.08 :: Wilkes Community College :: Wilkesboro, NC
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).
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
Continue reading for images from MerleFest 2008…
Images by: Gabe Nelson
|The Avett Brothers|
|Tara Nevins – Donna The Buffalo|
|James Nash – The Waybacks|
|John Cowan doing Zeppelin with The Waybacks|
JamBase | North Carolina
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