Every day at breakfast before heading off to MerleFest, I’ve sat down and planned how I’m going to negotiate the day and the 14 stages. This morning I had penciled in some old favorites, but when I arrived at the festival site I had a change of heart and decided to spend my morning listening to new bands. You could call them the bright morning stars of the Americana music world.
Saturday is the longest day of the festival, so I’m just back into my hotel room after midnight and have downloaded my pictures. Rather than write a long, involved review, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights of the day for me:
- Hearing the young band Bearfoot from Alaska. They sing beautifully and write interesting songs such as Drank Up All the Whiskey and Good in the Kitchen. Angela Oudean is a promising young fiddler and Odessa Jorgensen is a fine songwriter and singer.
- I love the energy of the New Generation Super Jam on the Watson (main) stage. The SteelDrivers played great straight-ahead bluegrass. The Belleville Outfit and The Dixie Bee-liners joined together for the spirited Bo Diddley number Mona, which included that most rare of bluegrass festival sightings – a drum solo. Cadillac Sky had another entertaining set, singing songs you don’t normally hear at MerleFest (You Shook Me All Night Long). And The Farewell Drifters offered good progressive bluegrass. (Yesterday, the leader of the Drifters got off one of the festival’s best lines when he said they were going to play some old time music – for them – and then launched into Ticket to Ride. That hurt.)
- It wasn’t all new acts. I did go back to the Creekside stage for more John Cowan (can you tell I like The Cow?). What’s not to like – the band zipped through the catchy Carla’s Got a New Tattoo, flexed their instrumental chops on Tony Rice’s Gasology, and then turned the Creekside into a revival meeting with Sam Cooke’s Jesus Gave Me Water. Just wait, you’ll find more Cowan a bit later in the day.
- Hearing Sam Bush sit in with The Greencards, who are still a new young band even though these two Australians and a Brit seem to have been around for a while, was a treat.
- David Bromberg’s set at the Hillside stage was much better – in my mind – than the one I heard a couple of years ago when he returned to touring. He was right on today, especially with the blues. He showed those chops on The First Time My Woman Left Me – This Month . On What a Wonderful World It Would Be, Bromberg updates the lyrics by adding “Ain’t nobody here knows what a slide rule is for.” That got a laugh in our section of the hillside. Finally, he brought on the Angel Band for a spirited version of Roger McGuinn’s Lost My Driving Wheel.
By 5 p.m. the entire Hillside Stage area was covered with thousands of people (a friend of mine estimated it at 10,000) for the highly anticipated Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks. Guitarist James Nash knows every single rock guitar lick ever played, and I’m convinced the Album Hour was conceived so that Nash and Sam Bush could live their rock god fantasies and so everyone can hear John Cowan sing pure rock and roll.
The identity of the album is kept a secret until the opening chords ring off of Nash’s guitar. During the sound check, he must have played five or six well-known licks, at one point stopping and saying, “Damn, that’s another record we can’t do.” But soon enough the classic kick-off of Brown Sugar started the set, and the entire crowd was ready for the Stone’s Sticky Fingers. Emmylou delighted the crowd by being the guest vocalist for Wild Horses, and while there wasn’t time to get through the entire album, these true guitar heroes rocked the Hillside Stage for a very satisfying hour of rock and roll history.
Tonight’s headliner at the Watson Stage was Emmylou Harris, and she didn’t disappoint. Playing to a huge crowd, Harris and her three-piece acoustic Red Dirt Band touched on songs from throughout her career. Poncho and Lefty, Red Dirt Girl, and Bright Morning Star (see the connection!) were all favorites. Sam Bush joined Emmylou for the finale Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight and had the crowd wanting more. Bromberg played the short Cabin Stage set to bridge the shows on the main stage, and then the Sam Bush Band was rocking…even on bluegrass numbers like Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. As I left, BeauSoleil had the dance tent hopping to a Cajun beat.
As the clock nears 2 a.m., I have to close this out. There’s the Nashville Bluegrass Band/Doc Watson gospel sing in the morning, not to mention the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
More to come…