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…

DJB