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…