The Hillside Stage at MerleFest is situated on an asphalt parking lot next to a classroom building on the Wilkesboro Community College campus. The lot itself gently slopes up in two directions until the pitch takes a 40 degree turn upwards on a grassy hillside that wraps around the front and stage left. Folding chairs are provided on the parking area directly in front of the stage, with the remainder being catch as catch can.
The weather at MerleFest can be unpredictable, cold and rainy in the morning and hot and sunny by afternoon. You have to go prepared. The forecast this year was warmish and sunny for the first two days, then chilly and rain all day on Saturday, which holds the most anticipated set of the festival’s four days, The Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour. Once there, the forecast kept getting a little better, but still no one was looking forward to rain gear as umbrellas are not permitted for obvious reasons.
Saturday morning found us in a chilly, light drizzle and hopes for merely a cloudy day with scattered showers. But as the day matured, the clouds became less grey, no rain was in sight, and the crowd at the stage began to grow in anticipation. There is always an audience buzz for this performance, a heightened sense that says, “Wow me.”
As usual, I asked lots of folks what they thought the album was going to be. And, as usual, most were incorrect, with one or two always getting it right as even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. As with previous years, the clues were cryptic with inside, indiscernible meanings. This year’s anagram was the one with Myrtle Grant. But, with my earlier preview article that provided not so much an additional clue as it did to narrow one’s focus, a couple of more folks correctly identified the album. As expected, the audience as whole did not immediately react as if they knew what the album was. It came just moments before the anthem-like refrain. As written, the chorus begins after line four. Here, the kicker was saved, well into the darkness of the verses. It made us pay attention, which was the intention. When it finally came, “Born in the USA, born in the USA,” the crowd signaled its release and erupted into party time.
The other anticipated aspect of the performance is who will be on hand as special guests, even though most are known well before showtime. This year, the stage was not as full as in some years past, but that was more than made up for by the inclusion of Joan Osborne on lead vocals. It was an inspired choice, as her voice is richer, more expressive, and more textured than Springsteen’s. Sorry, Boss fans; his vocals lack a nuance that do not always flesh out the lyrical underpinnings. Osborne has that nuance, and she has it in spades. This was my wow factor. You put her voice alongside James Nash’s meticulousness and the quality of the sidemen, and you have a combination that defies mere expectation.
My other wow factor: the entire show was spot-on musically. While it is always a challenge to bring together disparate musicians with few rehearsals, this year it was apparent that Nash spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on organization and arrangements. It was cohesive and tight, and his guitar playing — which has always been sweet — seemed to duet with Osborne’s vocals, while also underscoring them.
The other special guests included Jens Kruger on banjo, Tony Williamson on mandolin, Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, and the affable, always photogenic Mr. Americana himself — Jim Lauderdale, in his electric blue cowboy suit.
As in years past, there were good vibes on stage, but with fewer players there was, to my ears and eyes, a greater sense of purpose. The resultant whole was greater than the sum of its parts. No one tried to do too much, no one tried to be too cool. To use that word again, it was focused and cohesive.
This year’s album choice was, as in years past, a cultural landmark. Album Hour selections are classics in every sense of the word. This year, however, is the first outside what is considered to be the classic rock period of late 1960s and early ’70s, and the first to present complex social issues that hold no easy answers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the opening track’s exploration of a young man born on the dark side of town, used to impose his country’s foreign policy on a people half the world away, surviving only to return to an uncaring government and a bleak future. Springsteen had earlier written about sad young men, but never with this stark, existential bitterness. Then comes the double-edged refrain that we tell ourselves in order to both negate and deny what has been done in order to live with ourselves for the doing. It is a masterful song, as complex and insightful as any novel.
While Born in the USA explores the urban limitations of its young folks, there are also great dance tunes and love songs. There is not a weak track on the album, from which seven singles were released, beginning with “Dancing in the Dark” and the title song (the third single) some six months later. It stayed in the public’s mind and consciousness for quite some time, even if it is often misconstrued.
But nothing was misconstrued on this late Saturday afternoon, April 25, at MerleFest. The Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” was easily slipped into “Darlington County” and Marvin Gaye’s mournful lament “What’s Goin’ On” slid into “Dancing in the Dark.” Speaking of which, I always thought Bruce’s take was an updated version of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” whose opening lines are “We’re dancing in the dark and it soon ends/We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here/Time hurries by, we’re here and gone.” Different eras, different sensibilities, and emotionally devastating in their own distinct ways.
There were too many highlights to single out, but a particularly moving moment was in Osborne and Lauderdale’s sexy duet, “I’m Going Down.” You could tell Jim was relishing his big moment, and with Joan as his sidekick, that made it all the more special.
It had been awhile since I had listened to the album, and the first thing I did when I got home was to plop the LP on the turntable, to hear it in all its analog glory. It was certainly that, but the songs and their powers also seemed to get lost in that ’80s production, which was in style at the time. That, and the overused reverb, which only reminded me why I go to live shows — to hear the music unadorned. As I intuited from my conversation with Nash on the Thursday before, it was as if I had heard the album again for the first time. I cannot wait to listen to the resultant disc.
The album was done in order, and at the end of the final song, “My Hometown,” the band reprised the refrain, “Born in the USA, Born in he USA.” Not as a boast, or even a lament so much as it was an observation of fact, an acknowledgment that the album’s songs are about America and Americans, about our times and who we are. Both then and now. The songs resonate in our daily lives, in our economic realities, in our romantic entanglements, in our hometowns and, to paraphrase James Joyce, among the living and the dead.
As we began to disperse, for the first time I felt a chill in the air and a light rain began to fall.
See additional photos on my Flickr page.