Bright Morning Stars

Bearfoot at the Creekside StageEvery 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.  Next Generation Super JamThe 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.John Cowan
  • 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. 

Emmylou, Ronnie Simpkins, and Sam Bush on the Watson Stage

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…


New Wave and Old Standards Shine at Merlefest

Tony Rice

Merlefest Day 2 began bright and early for me this morning, with a rousing performance at the Americana Stage by the DC-based band Scythian. I caught the irony of having a band fronted by two Ukrainian brothers opening up the Americana stage, but that’s the joy of Merlefest and hey, it is a post-Obama election world.

Then came the first great surprise of the morning. I went to the Traditional Stage to hear the New North Carolina Ramblers, but walked in to a packed tent listening in rapt attention to 86-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson playing a set with old time banjo wizard David Holt.  (It turns out the Ramblers were double-booked and so Doc and Holt were on-call.  And when I say packed, I mean packed.  The picture below was taken from the side because the front was crammed with kids and grandparents alike.) 

Doc was in fine form, playing guitar and singing with lots of strength and emotion. Fiddle tunes (Whiskey Before Breakfast paired with Ragtime Annie) were interspersed with Travis-style picking (Deep River Blues) and even a harp/bones duet. Holt taught everyone the Etta Baker version of Railroad Bill and had us all singing the chorus:

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, Lights his cigar with a $10 bill and then rides, rides, rides

Watson and HoltDoc Watson (left) playing with David Holt ended their set with There Goes the Train That Carried My Girl From Town.  I’ve heard Doc dozens of times over the years (the first at Nashville’s old Exit/In as a college student), but this was a special set and I’m glad I caught it.

After watching a bit of the Welcome Home Super Jam on the main stage, I worked my way over to the Hillside to spend the afternoon. And what an afternoon it was.

The day’s second surprise was my introduction to the band Cadillac Sky. While their instruments gave the appearance of a straight-ahead bluegrass band, it took about 10 seconds to figure out otherwise.

After rocking through tunes such as Everybody’s Got a Good-Bye Story, they would shift gears and have guitarist David Mayfield play a little personal biography vignette that closes with an abrupt ending that suggests you’d much rather be listening to something else.   Mayfield’s stage persona is described on the Skaggs Family Records website as “poetic-demolition derby” and he proved it with a guitar-thrashing but amazingly entertaining solo version of Freeborn Man.  Jimmy Martin he’s not!

The Hillside Stage view at Merlefest 2009

And that’s not surprising.  Cadillac Sky cites influences such as Radiohead and Gnarls Barkley.  Not your typical bluegrass band but part of a new wave of “new traditional” (for lack of a better term)  bands that was very much on display today at Merlefest.  These guys are terrific musicians and lead singer Bryan Simpson has a great voice that’s supported by strong harmony singing by the band.  Check out Gravity’s Our Enemy, their new CD, but most definitely take the time to see them live if you get the chance.

I had heard of the teenage mandolin phenom Sierra Hull when I was at Merlefest two years ago, but I’d never heard her front her band, Highway 111.  She’s an obvious talent and a fluid mandolin player who has – as Sam Bush notes on her website – tremendous potential for future growth.  Her voice is still that of a teenager (a similar issue with the Lovell Sisters), but her mandolin work already shows a lot of maturity and musicianship.  Hull ripped through  Smashville, a new instrumental written by Mountain Heart fiddle player Jim VanCleve.

From the youngsters, the Hillside StageWayne Henderson then turned to someone who was there at the first Merlefest 22 years ago – newgrass vocalist John Cowan.   With his bandmates in the New Grass Revival in the 70s and 80s, Cowan helped redefine bluegrass and also helped set the course for an inclusive, open, and experimental Merlefest.  Cowan started with the old NGR hit Callin’ Baton Rouge and inserted a bit of Blackberry Blossom in the middle.   His jazz-influenced drummer provided a unique percussive setting for the Bill Monroe classic – and Cowan staple – Good Woman’s Love.   All in all, Cowan was Cowan – and I like that very much.

After three hours of sitting on the ground and shifting around to try and stay in the shade, I was ready for a different venue.  I stumbled across guitar builder and picker extraordinaire Wayne Henderson (photo above) in a picker’s tent just playing with festival-goers who had brought along their instruments.  I listened to a bit of the Grascals on the main stage, but I’m not big fan so didn’t stay long and caught some dinner.

But in another surprise, after dinner I came across The Duhks playing in the dance tent.  I love The Duhks, but don’t normally go looking for music in the dance tent.  But the roof was pulsing with the energy coming from the Winnipeg-based band, and so I stopped by.  And that place was rocking! 

The Duhks at the Dance TentIt was a high-energy show throughout the set, but they took it to another level with an over-the-top version of Whole Lotta Love.  Being from Canada, they even added a verse in French.  Lead vocalist Sarah Dugas has a set of pipes and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and drums blasting out stadium rock.  Wow!

The day ended for me in a rain-marred show by Mountain Heart with special guest Tony Rice.  I entered with the band playing  a surprisingly good version of Whipping Post.  (Everyone at Merlefest wants to be the Allman Brothers, which is appropriate since the late Merle Watson – for whom the festival is named – always cited Duane Allman as his influence on slide guitar.)  After a short opening, Mountain Heart quickly brought out Tony and started working through his cannon.  Most turned out well.  Mountain Heart has a talented lead singer, a wonderful mandolin player (Aaron Ramsey), and the aforementioned Jim VanCleve on fiddle.  When playing straight-ahead bluegrass with Tony, such as Freeborn Man, they sizzled.  But on the Bela Fleck-penned Whitewater, they couldn’t quite match the original, even with Tony playing a great couple of solos.  I know, because I listened to the 20th anniversary jam version of Whitewater on the drive home tonight.  It isn’t surprising they couldn’t top Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Byron House.  Who can?

Tonight Tony played a beautiful solo medley of Shenandoah and Wayfaring Stranger (see photo at the top of the post) that led into the band’s version of Tony’s classic Manzanita.  A very satisfying show all around.

Soon after they left the stage, lightening and thunder led to a pause in the main stage activities.  I was tired (it was very hot on this day where we weren’t suppose to see any rain), so decided I’d miss Del McCoury and I’d catch the Waybacks at the Album show tomorrow.  Now that I’ve posted reviews, I’m off to bed to rest up for Day 3 at Merlefest.

More to come…