Oh Happy Day! – Merlefest 25 Wraps Up

Sunday is “Go to Meeting” day in the South, so it figures that the final day at Merlefest has a heavy gospel flavor.

But because it is Merlefest – and therefore eclectic – you have your choice of shape-note singing, bluegrass gospel, Sunday blues (which should appeal to the non-believers and sinners alike), and black gospel.

I opted for the black gospel sound this year, mostly by default.  (Not surprisingly, I was “late” for church because I slept in after a night of the blues with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.)

But the Lord moves in mysterious ways.  And with the Benedict College Gospel Choir (photo at top of post) the Lord definitely moves!

By the time I arrived, the choir had an enthusiastic crowd at the Watson Stage swaying and singing to that gospel standard Oh Happy Day!  There was testifying by some of the best voices of the weekend (and that’s saying a lot).  It was the perfect way to kick off Day Four – the final day – of Merlefest 25.

The only band I saw all weekend that could hold its own with the Gospel Choir in terms of getting everyone to their feet was Scythian (above), and luckily they followed on the Watson Stage.  This is a band that blends all sorts of roots music together – one reviewer said the band brings first-generation authenticity to their unique hodgepodge of Irish, Celtic, klezmer, and gypsy influences. Whatever their influences, they bring tremendous energy that is “hard-kicking” and infectious.  It was barely past noon and the joint was jumping.

I left the Scythian set early because I wanted to catch Sarah and Christian Dugas at the Americana Stage. I last heard Sarah Dugas (above) at Merlefest as the lead singer for The Duhks, where they were tearing down the Dance Tent with an incredible version of Whole Lotta Love.  On Saturday, Sarah was the primary lead singer for the Hillside Album Hour, where she did a powerful version of Purple Haze, among others.  The band’s Sunday set was just as memorable.  She is an amazing singer with a great set of pipes.  It was turning out to be a happy day all around.

The energy continued with that “high octane hillbilly band” Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (above) – the best band name ever. The crowd loved the hits (The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore) but I especially liked a quiet, acoustic version of Dark As a Dungeon.  That song has long been a favorite of mine, especially since I heard Guy Clark sing it in a workshop entitled “Songs I Wish I’d Written.”  Stuart, who was at the first Merlefest 25 years ago and traveled for a time with Doc Watson (who hasn’t Marty played with?), did a nice job of remembering his bluegrass roots while focusing on the songs that made him a country music star (with the hair to prove it!).

Stuart’s set was followed by a Cabin Stage appearance by Scottish folk legend Dougie MacLean, which was the perfect bridge to the day’s headliner.  The energy was ratcheted down, but the intensity and musicality were right at the forefront of this 25-minute set.  There was a haunting song written when MacLean realized he was becoming more like his father every day, and his performance won over a crowd that was clearly waiting for AK+US.

For the only time this weekend, the Watson Stage area was jammed packed as the crowd was ready for Alison Krauss + Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas (above) – the longest band name ever. With more Grammy awards than everyone else at the festival combined, AK+US didn’t disappoint.  From the first notes of Paper Airplane, through Dan Tyminski’s rendition of Dust Bowl Children, to Jerry Douglas’ high-powered instrumental Who’s Your Uncle, all three “stars” in this band were shining from the beginning.

I actually have a theory about Alison Krauss that was supported again on Sunday.  Every note the band plays is perfect, and they generally stick to the arrangements they put on record.  So it is only in the stage patter that Krauss gets to improvise…and she often goes off the rails with crazy comments.  On Sunday, it was her rambling explanation of why Wild Bill Jones was the perfect “sad song” – because it had everything possible in it that could go wrong in three-and-a-half minutes, with the “cherry on top” of someone getting “jail time.”  I’ve heard that bit of patter before, but then she turned to Tyminski and asked him for his favorite “sad” verse of the song, and they went off on something about Celebrity Apprentice.  Wacko stuff, but she has the voice and musicianship that makes it all seem right.

With a long drive back home in front of me, I hit the road before the crowds, but thanks to “Radio Free Merlefest” at 90.9 I was able to catch the end of the show…and the official end to Merlefest 25.

What a ride it has been.

More to come…


All Ages Welcome – Merlefest 25

Merlefest has a multi-generational flavor built into its DNA that was on full display Saturday.

The festival’s patriarch, Doc Watson (top of post), took his turn at age 89 on the main stage that bears his name and that of his late son Merle for an hour-long love-fest by musical friends who have played with him since the 1970s.  As soon as the last chorus of Will the Circle Be Unbroken rang out, the Snyder Family Band – featuring 16-year-old Zeb Snyder playing some amazing flatpicked guitar along with his 13-year-old fiddle playing sister Samantha – took over on the cabin stage to showcase that roots music is in good hands with the new generation.  It was like that all day.

I was dragging when I arrived on Saturday morning, but found a pick-me-up that’s better than coffee:  Jeffrey Broussard & The Creole Cowboys.

Playing the pumping accordion that’s the heart and soul of Creole music, Broussard and the Cowboys rocked out on traditional Zydeco tunes such as Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You (described by the bassist as, “Don’t take no wooden nickles”) and Baby Please Don’t Go Down to New Orleans (Cause I Love You So).

19-year-old Sierra Hull (above) with her band Highway 111 was next up at the Creekside Stage, which was Mandolin Central on Saturday afternoon.  Hull is a prodigious talent who is growing into maturity as an artist and a band leader.  They featured songs from her most recent release Daybreak and demonstrated why she was the first bluegrass musician to get Boston’s Berklee College of Music’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.  Hull also made everyone in the audience feel old when she introduced the bass player as “The only member of the band old enough to rent a car.”  Ouch!  What the hell was I doing at age 19!

Bluegrass veteran Claire Lynch (above and below with The Claire Lynch Band) took the main stage mid-afternoon and demonstrated right off the bat why she’s such a festival favorite.  Playing with her band – which includes two previous winners of Merlefest instrumental contests plus premier bassist Mark Schatz – she showed what a mixture of prodigious young talent and exceptional experience can produce.  May Be a Little Bit Tight Tonight was the perfect kick-off number for a sharp 45-minute set.  Of course it helps when you have one of the best voices in bluegrass, country, and roots music at your core.

Fans and performers are in close proximity at Merlefest. You can be walking through the instrument tent and see banjo phenom Noam Pikelny (below) signing an instrument, or be face-to-face with two of the most influential mandolin players – and musicians – of their generation, Sam Bush (middle below) and Chris Thile (third photo below), as they prepare to take the stage.  There’s great accessibility to these talented musicians, even in the middle of 80,000 people.

Following Lynch’s set, I had to make some choices, thanks to the amazing amount of talent at Merlefest and the limited number of hours in the day.  I caught the opening song of Tony Rice’s set on the Watson Stage, but quickly left to return to the Creekside for one of my favorite events of Merlefest:  Mando Mania (photos below).  For those who can’t get enough mandolin, this is your afternoon!

Hosted by North Carolina mandolin player Tony Williamson, this year’s Mando Mania featured Joe Walsh of the Gibson Brothers, Chris Thile (above) of the Punch Brothers (and Nickel Creek fame), Sam Bush, and Sierra Hull.  The set basically consists of one of the players suggesting a tune, and then everyone swapping solos for a couple of times through the lineup.  All are monster mandolin players. Chris Thile, however, is from another planet.

This year, the end of Mando Mania was scheduled against the beginning of my other “can’t miss” event: the Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks.  And they are on opposite sides of the college where the festival is held.  Up a BIG hill.  Yikes!  I had to run.

Begun a few years ago when James Nash of The Waybacks wanted to play an hour of Led Zeppelin tunes “just to annoy some folks,” the Hillside Album Hour (named after the stage where it is held – see crowd at this year’s event above) has become its own phenomenon.  Nash selects a classic rock album to cover and asks a variety of guests to join the band.  The name of the album isn’t released prior to the opening chords, but clues are released on Facebook and everyone tries to guess the identity of this year’s featured album.  My last visit to Merlefest was for Sticky Fingers.  It is imperative that you be there for the opening chords, or you’ll miss half the fun.

I made it (and have the t-shirt to prove it), although my knees will never be the same after an hour clinging to the top of the hill trying desperately not to slide down into the patrons below me.  When Nash hit the opening chords of Purple Haze from the Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album (#15 on Rolling Stone’s Best 500 rock albums), the crowd exploded.  At the end of the first tune, Nash said, “Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Your reaction to those opening chords was worth it!”  John Cowan singing Hey Joe was a highlight for me, but the entire show was terrific.

The evening sets began with Doc and friends – with the friends carrying the musical load.  Cowan again hit a musical highlight – one that was very emotional for Doc and everyone else – by singing Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky for Doc and his wife Rosa Lee.  There were more than a few people dabbing at their eyes when Cowan’s beautiful tenor voice sang, “Don’t my baby look the sweetest, when she’s in my arms asleep.”

The Punch Brothers (above) – an amazing group of talented musicians fronted by the other-worldly Chris Thile (below) – were the first of the evening’s two headliners.  Noam Pikelny dead-panned, when introducing the wonderful Jimmie Rodgers tune Brakeman’s Blues, that the job of “Singing Brakeman” was coming back in vogue, with the new economy and all.  At times I’d wonder when these guys were going to find the melody, but just then they would morph into Back in Time and show the rest of us why we should definitely keep our day jobs.

From phenom to phenom…Thile turned the stage over to Derek Trucks and the fabulous Tedeschi Trucks Band.  As was fitting for Merlefest, Susan Tedeschi introduced the blues tune Do As You Please, Get What You Deserve by saying perhaps Merle Watson – who loved the blues – would enjoy this tune.  I know that everyone at Merlefest certainly did.

More to come…


Back to the Future(man) – How Are We Going to Top Merlefest Day Two?

At 12:30 on Friday afternoon, I thought I had seen the best show I was likely to catch on Day Two of Merlefest.

Well, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong!

And I’m here to be the first to admit it.

The day started strong.  As I expected, The Steel Wheels had a huge crowd on hand at the Americana stage for their morning set, and they didn’t disappoint.  The Shenandoah Valley band – at both this set and a later gig at the Creekside Stage – played to large and enthusiastic crowds.  I heard more than one person turn to their friend/partner/spouse and say, “These guys were incredible last night.”

Spider Wings (“When you got too much, you don’t got anything”…or something like that) was my favorite, but they had so many good tunes coming out of them all day long it was hard to pick out just one.  Lead singer Trent Wagler’s piece about his grandfather’s response to Alzheimer’s – entitled Can’t Take That Music From Me – was lovely.

The juggling of schedules began almost immediately, as I had to leave The Steel Wheels set before it was over in order to catch the James Nash Making the Acoustic Guitar Rock workshop.  But am I glad I did.

Nash (above) is the front man for one of my favorite groups, The Waybacks, and he’s a monster guitar player.  On my Facebook page today I posted the status that “When I grow up, I want to be James Nash…He’s incredibly talented, creative, funny – and looks like a rock star to boot!”  He put on a 45-minute clinic on how to bring a rock attitude to acoustic guitar playing.  Rule #1 for learning to play fast:  don’t practice while watching the ball game.  Guilty!  Nash, playing a beautiful Santa Cruz 1990 OM guitar, worked through a lovely arrangement of the Beatles tune In My Life, showed how to cheat to get a string bend when you don’t want to rip your fingers like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and had the entire auditorium in the palm of his hand.  He even ended with some Grateful Dead, and told the crowd that they probably wouldn’t be hearing much Dead tomorrow afternoon at the Hillside Album Hour.

Nash – and just about everyone else in the auditorium – left immediately and headed to the Hillside Stage for a “virtually unrehearsed” show that Nash says you can only do, “When you  have no shame (if you fail).”  Playing with The Greencards’ Kym Warner and Jens Kruger of The Kruger Brothers, this was the “international” show – from Australia and Switzerland respectively  – and the entire band came out rocking on Calling Elvis and their Earl Scruggs tribute Too Late Now.  

Kruger (above) is an amazing banjo player who kept with Nash and Warner lick for lick (even when he mouthed, “I don’t know this tune” to Warner’s lightening fast Talking With Zeus instrumental.  When the Hillside crowd finished singing the old Ray Charles song Hallelujah, I Love Her So with the band, I thought, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Did I mention that I was wrong?

I drifted in and out of sets during the afternoon, catching bits of Peter Rowan and The Free Mexican Airforce, the Steep Canyon Rangers (above – loved their Tennessee Blues), The Greencards, and a few others. But I went outside the festival grounds late in the afternoon in search of something green to eat!  (Don’t get me started on limitations of the Merlefest food tent.)

I returned in time to catch most of the wonderful set (above) by John (The Cow) Cowan, song-writer extraordinaire Darrell Scott, and Doobie Brothers founder Pat Simmons.  They shared songs they had each written, sang covers (including the second Beatles sighting of the day), and ended with a spirited version of the Doobie classic Without Love.  (It was great to hear Simmons play those opening riffs on an acoustic guitar…and they sounded so perfect!)

Then the night really got interesting.

Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones lineup took the stage to great anticipation. Roy “Futureman” Wooten (at the top of the post) with his drumitar, brother Victor Wooten on bass, and Howard Levy – one of the world’s great harmonica players – make up that original lineup, and they took the crowd on an hour-long journey through time and space (as Futureman would probably describe it).  I was always sorry to see Levy leave the band in the 1990s, and his return gave the creative spark to a group of musicians that didn’t need that much encouragement to try new works.  It was an amazing evening, made all the more memorable when Fleck sat down with just his acoustic banjo and played a medley of tunes “For Earl” that began with a simply beautiful You Are My Flower (which Earl always played on the guitar) and ended with The Ballad of Jed Clampett (and I believe some Dear Old Dixie thrown in the middle).  Heartfelt and lovely.

Sam Bush has played at each of the 24 previous Merlefests, and you figured he had something up his sleeve for the 25th anniversary.  The Sam Bush Band opened with John Hartford’s Vamp in the Middle (a terrific tune) and went off on an exploration for the old NGR instrumental Crooked Smile.  After a few songs, Sam said, “I want to be the first person to welcome these two folks to the Merlefest stage,” and proceeded to welcome Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band – Saturday evening’s headliner.  The band kicked off Bell Bottom Blues – a song played by Derek’s namesake Eric Clapton – and the night, which was already special, turned magical.  Bush played a perfectly serviceable electric lead break, but Trucks stepped forward and showed what the #16  and youngest member of the Rolling Stone list of the Top 100 Guitarists of All Time sounds like.  God, how does he get that sound out of his guitar?!

Next came Gimme Shelter, a “song by a band that has never played Merlefest.”  Susan Tedeschi’s vocals were incredible and the mountains behind the Watson Stage were beginning to rock.

As if that wasn’t enough, Bush then called out former New Grass Revival band mates Bela Fleck and John Cowan (above) for an impromptu reunion and – as has been happening throughout the weekend – led off a tribute to the late Levon Helm. Bush, Cowan, and Tedeschi traded verses on Up on Cripple Creek, but the entire crowd was singing along.  When the tune morphed into the old fiddle/banjo standard Cripple Creek, banjo wizards Fleck and Scott Vestal (below) traded licks and choruses.

Incredible musicians playing incredible music together…often in new juxtapositions that take them out of their normal zone. When that set was over, I had to leave.  I stopped by a packed Dance Tent to catch just a bit of Donna the Buffalo but what I really wanted was to get in the car, drive those North Carolina country roads back to my hotel, and savor an amazing day.

More to come…


Merlefest at 25 – Gifts in Small Packages

Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages.  That’s how it felt for me on the opening evening of the 25th anniversary of Merlefest – the Americana music festival tucked away in the hills of North Carolina.

Opening day at Merlefest is the easiest to navigate, because virtually all the music is centered around the main “Watson Stage” – named for the blind guitarist Doc Watson from nearby Deep Gap and his late son and musical partner Merle.  (It was Merle’s tragic passing on October 23, 1985 that led to the first festival twenty-five years ago in 1988.)  Juggling between the 14 venues and making tough decisions about which acts to see and which acts to miss only happens later in the weekend.

So I arrived after my drive from Silver Spring in time to catch the first of the main acts on the Watson Stage – The Boxcars. Coming together after stints with Alison Krauss + Union Station, J.D. Crowe, and Blue Moon, this is a “new” band with a lot of experience.  Even with mandolinist Adam Steffey under the weather, they produced a terrific kick-off set of good contemporary bluegrass.

The other Watson Stage acts were equally strong.  Donna the Buffalo with guest Jim Lauderdale (above) had the joint jumping, with tunes such as Except For That One Time and the accordion/washboard-fueled Hot Tamale Baby. Both Donna the Buffalo and Lauderdale are long-time Merlefest favorites, and it was clear that many had come to the Watson Stage area to hear their set, and then had plans to skip out to the food or merchandise tents.

But Merlefest is full of surprises.  There is this small “cabin” stage that sits to the side of the Watson stage, and while the main acts set up, small half-hour sets are performed, sometimes by up-and-coming artists and sometimes by big names playing solo.  The music never stops in this area, and you can hear some real gems.

That was the case tonight.  When the last notes of the Buffalo/Lauderdale set were ringing out, festival goers were heading up the aisle.  But many were stopped dead in their tracks…and then returned to their seats…by the opening number from a Shenandoah Valley band that hails from Harrisonburg, Virginia, near my old stomping grounds of Staunton.

The Steel Wheels kicked off their Cabin Stage set (above and at the top of the post) with an incredibly powerful a cappella number, Rain in the Valley, and then held the crowd in their hands until they wrapped up with The Shape I’m In as a tribute to the recently-departed Levon Helm.  While short in time, the band’s set won many new fans last night as evidenced by the standing ovation they received.

The other gift in a small package came later on the Cabin Stage, when Jim Lauderdale, Claire Lynch, and western singer Wylie Gustafson shared solo tunes on a songwriter showcase.  Special treats included Gustafson’s Buck Up and Huck It – three little vingettes of modern western life woven into one song – Lynch’s Wednesday Child tune for all the “bad boys” – and then a beautiful bit of high plains yodeling as the festival grounds grew quiet to let the clear notes from Gustafson sail off into the clear spring evening.

The final two Watson Stage acts for the evening certainly satisfied those who came for the headliners.  I’m not a huge fan of Dailey & Vincent, but I was more impressed with this set than with my first encounter at Merlefest three years ago.  They’ve dropped some of the canned stage patter, added B.J. Cherryholmes to the band to play some hot fiddle (on Black Eyed Susie and the show-closing Lee Highway Blues) and sing some beautiful harmony.  While I know I’m not suppose to say this, having lived in Staunton for 15 years, but a little bit of the old Statler Brothers style goes a long way with me…and Dailey & Vincent have adopted it as a big part of their show (including the incredibly low bass notes in the harmony).

Vince Gill (above and left) came on stage with a bit of an Eric Clapton look…scruffy beard, black glasses…and on at least a couple of tunes could have given the old guitar master a run for his money.  Oklahoma Borderline is his show-off guitar number, and he didn’t disappoint.

But Gill also knows “I live in a big house because I sing high like a woman” and so the majority of his show featured his vocals on love songs.  Gill was having fun, however, and before singing a cheating song (“country music today doesn’t have enough cheating songs” he opined), he asked for a show of hands of people who “were here this weekend with someone they shouldn’t be…just to see who was going to like this song the best.”  He also credited his bluegrass roots with teaching him the harmonic structure for vocals that shaped his country music career.

The evening’s final gift came in the dance tent on the way out to the car.  Blind Boy Chocolate & The Milk Sheiks – who will NEVER be confused as a mainline country music act – were raising the roof with their unique takes on Frankie and Johnny and a bunch of other “old songs.”  That’s the Merlefest I wanted to remember as I headed out into the night.

More to come…


Adding Another Calatrava to the Collection

I was heading out of Dallas to Ft. Worth this morning, when I caught a glimpse of a signature white bridge crossing the Trinity River.  Could it be a Calatrava?

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, when a friend across the aisle said, “That’s the new Calatrava bridge which just opened here.  Yes!

I knew then what my late afternoon schedule would include: a trip to photograph yet another Santiago Calatrava creation for my small but growing collection.

I began photographing Calatrava bridges while on a 2009 trip to Dublin, Ireland, where two of his signature bridges cross the River Liffey.  My son Andrew is a big Calatrava fan and had alerted me to the existence of the bridges in Dublin.

A couple of weeks later I was in Milwaukee, and was fortunate to be able to photograph the “flapping” of the wings of the Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Museum of Art.  That blog  has been one of the most popular I’ve ever posted, as web surfers have found the images online.

So on a beautiful spring day in Dallas, I visited the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River – the first of three planned Calatrava designs for the city’s Trinity River Project.  The central span – a graceful curve – adds a beautiful sculptural element to the city’s skyline.

Enjoy the photographs.

More to come…


History says, “This is what happened.” Preservation adds, “Right here.”

I’m in Dallas, Texas, for a meeting with preservation supporters.  On our tour, the preservation architect stands outside a building and says, “We’ll restore this building to its 1914 AND 1963 levels of significance.”

Guess the building.

It could only be the Beaux Arts style Old City Hall, where Lee Harvey Oswald was held and interrogated by Dallas police and then – while being transferred to the County jail – was shot and killed by Jack Ruby on a November weekend in 1963.

Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were on November 22, 1963 when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas.  The various members of our tour group heard at their offices (one was actually working in Dallas at that time), from their children who had been watching cartoons, and from their parents.  As for me, I remember the principal at Cookeville’s Capshaw Elementary School coming over the intercom to tell us first that the president had been shot, and then a little later that he had died.

It is history that one never forgets.

So touring the Old City Hall in Dallas today – even amidst the buckets catching water dripping through the ceilings and while stepping over piles of trash that have accumulated since the police department left the building to move to a shiny, new LEED-certified headquarters – gave a fresh focus, understanding, and relevancy to those long-ago events.

We saw the elevator where Oswald was transported between floors, and where he took his final, fateful ride on Sunday morning.

The cell, in the “maximum security” wing of the jail where Oswald was held for two nights, was as foreboding as any I’ve seen.

The office of the chief of homicide, where Oswald was interrogated on more than one occasion, remains much as it was in 1963 – minus the furniture.  Pictures from the period show the window to the larger office where the homicide team did its work, and the crowds of reporters crammed into the hallway outside this office waiting to catch a glimpse of Oswald on his way to-and-from the interrogation.

Finally, we descended to the basement where we walked down the hall and stood on the drive-through where the car waited for Oswald on that fateful Sunday morning.  A colleague – holding a historic structures report with photographs of the shooting – provided the perfect foreground for a picture of the place where the events of that November weekend spun out-of-control once more.

When I speak around the country, I often use the borrowed line, “History says, ‘This is what happened.’ Preservation adds, ‘Right here.'”  That never felt more real to me than today, walking through the corridors and jail cells where the history of the world was changed.  And I’m glad that when this remarkable old building – probably the best Beaux Arts structure in Texas – is rehabilitated into a law school, those areas that witnessed the seismic shifts that took place on a November in Dallas will be restored, interpreted, and open to the public to help us better understand how these events that so affected us all unfolded in time and space.

Yes, restoring this building to its 1914 AND 1963 areas of significance is absolutely the right thing to do.

More to come…