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…


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…