Closing out Merlefest 2011 with Band of Joy, among other things
It had been kind of overcast all day. A couple of times, the sun asserted itself through the clouds, making them almost sort of see-through before it dimmed again and they reappeared. After three days of wicked hot sun, beating skin red and sweating through jeans, it was a sweet repose. In the morning, after catching two songs from Doc Watson by the creek (there’s a reason the man is a legend in his field), I’d sat on the side of that steep hill, toward the bottom, and watched Crooked Still deliver the third of three show-stealing sets.
The quintet’s new lineup is a constant source of fascination for me. It’s three-quarters of a string quartet – the viola slot is filled instead by a banjo – making them quite possibly the only act of the festival where an acoustic guitar made an appearance for only one song. Though Some Strange Country was hands-down one of my favorite albums last year, the band’s earlier efforts always left me a little wanting. Here, though, live at Merlefest, with this new lineup, even the older songs seem to pop out of their shells and whiz about the air.
Were it not for two other notable acts, I’d confidently call them Best of Fest, but alas, the day played on.
Several times throughout the weekend, someone had mentioned to me a band called Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. It started the way buzz starts – just a couple random rumors. “I heard the dance tent was howling Friday night with those guys,” became “They sold out of all their merch in an hour.”
Apparently a troupe of busking musicians from right here in Asheville (I’ve never seen the full outfit before, though the saw player is often outside Malaprop’s bookstore by himself), the band played a closing day set on the Plaza. For those who may have never been to Merlefest before, it takes place on the campus of a community college in Wilkesboro, NC. It’s a kind of odd place to throw a roots music festival with 13 stages, considering it’s covered in concrete and classrooms, and whatnot, but the festival has been going on for 24 years now, and they make it work.
The Plaza where Blind Boy and his band threw down on Sunday afternoon is really just an area between two buildings of classrooms, between two sets of stairs. I guess you can call it a plaza, but when there’s not a music festival there, it’s probably just called “that flat slab of concrete between those two buildings.” It’s a small space, with a small stage relegated for locals and open mic performances. There, Blind Boy Chocolate & the Milk Sheiks played to a crowd which spilled over onto stairwells and tables. People standing on things to see. Necks craning. It was the most remarkable thing – the way word travels through a festival – and the way one completely unknown band used to playing only for disinterested passersby could suddenly command so much attention and respect.
But, they deserved it. Their “hardware section” (as they call themselves) was tight and dynamic – washbucket bass, saw, and washboard, respectively. Then there’s a resophonic guitar, one guy who plays banjolin and mandolin, and another on fiddle. The crowd couldn’t get enough. I found myself wondering if it was a freak event, or if it’s the beginning of something big for this troupe. They sold out of merch, after all. Had to run home and get more for Sunday. (“We made these CDs ourselves,” they boasted to the crowd.) Those who had become devotees throughout the weekend threw around comparisons like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avetts’ early days, and Carolina Chocolate Drops. Someone called the buzz around these guys “a phenomenon.”
We’ll see. I can only say, ripping myself away to catch Tim O’Brien on the mainstage was something I did with great effort. Once I’d decided I didn’t want to miss O’Brien entirely, it took me four songs of to get the motivation to migrate away, so full was the energy in that plaza.
O’Brien was on, though, and I was glad I didn’t miss him entirely. What can one say about his live set, other than he’s one of the finest bluegrass pickers around. He warmed the stage up nicely for the day’s – and the festival’s – final act.
As a general rule, I’d spent the weekend mostly disinterested with the mainstage. Part of that was the rows upon rows of chairs blocking my view. The giant video screen which distracted from watching the real people on stage right there. Or maybe it was the sheer size of the field, the way everything is so spread out there. Who knows. None of the headliners really kept my attention. I’d gotten the feeling Lyle Lovett was putting on a stellar set, but it seemed so easy to disconnect from mainstage performances due to all these other distractions.
That was not the case with Band of Joy, though. Plant’s intensity was surmounted only by Buddy Miller and Darrel Scott’s incredible instrumentalism…and Patty Griffin’s vocals on top of all that. The band was cohesive and strong, grooving to one giant groove, moving atop one enveloping wave. The set list came from all over the place – each of the band members’ impressive solo catalogs, the Led Zeppelin song book (they opened with a roots groove version of “Black Dog”), their recent Band of Joy album, Plant’s collaborative disc with Alison Krauss, and the annals of American folk music. Where the Doobie Brothers had felt like an odd choice for this particular demographic, Band of Joy were spot on in every way. It was almost as if every other band, every other performance throughout the weekend – with all their memorable adeptness and impressive musicality – was now being schooled on how it’s done.
If that’s how Merlefest closes its 24th year, I can only imagine what will take place next year for their 25th Anniversary.
photo by Amos Perrine