Merlefest 2011 – Falling down the hill
First thing’s first: Chuck Taylors are not the key to getting across a very steep hill. I feel the need to make that public service announcement before I proceed into telling you more about Merlefest 2011. If you’re coming to this thing next year for their landmark 25th Anniversary (and you should; from what I understand the lineup will be stellar), do yourself a favor and pack a good pair of hiking shoes. Something with a little more hug and traction. The Hillside stage is possibly the best setting at this festival, but it is exactly what it sounds like: a stage on the side of a hill. It’s a very steep hill. Nobody has any business walking across it. Or down it, for that matter. It’s a good thing they don’t serve alcohol here, as there’d likely be plenty more accidents.
At any rate, I started my day there, with Asheville’s own Town Mountain on the stage – straight-up, no-frills bluegrass, keeping the tradition alive, and they’re good at it. Plowing through a selection of songs from all three of their albums (they have a new one out May 10, which sounds great from the couple of spins I’ve given it), it was a nice start to the day.
As the day journeyed on, I caught Sarah Jarosz, who also has a great new album coming out. Where Song Up In Her Head was decidedly a bluegrass-infused statement, I’m guessing this new one will be a little more singer-songwriterly. I haven’t heard the disc yet, but the songs she chose to share from the stage today were more meandering and lyrical, less focused on Jarosz’s natural, seemingly prodigious instrumental dexterity.
Tony Rice had the mainstage this morning, for a series of powerful guitar licks. But, it was Crooked Still who stole the day so far. Playing in the Walker Center (an auditorium on the community college campus), the quintet played a rousing hour-long set pulling mostly from last year’s Some Strange Country. They noted they have a new live record coming out, but didn’t say when it’ll drop. Frontwoman Aoife O’Donovan made the weekend’s first shoutout to Hazel Dickens (to my knowledge) before playing a stirring and emotional version of “Pretty Bird.” I was surprised I hadn’t heard mention of Hazel’s memory until that moment, but the rendition O’Donovan did with just her vocals and fiddle work from Brittany Haas, was an easy highlight of the whole weekend thus far.
The only thing rivaling it was a raw and dirty traditional blues set from Corey Harris & Bill Wiggins last night on the Cabin stage. Armed only with guitar and harmonica, the duo delivered a striking and inspiring 30-minute set. I was only sorry I hadn’t caught them earlier.
Today, I’d been told to make a point of catching the Hillside album hour show – a set by the Waybacks with special guest Joan Osborne, where they’d play their way through a legendary album. Past Hillside album hours have showcased albums by Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Today, they played the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach. Not being a fan of the Allmans myself, I stayed for three songs before moving on.
Now, it’s time to sign off and run back out to catch the end of Sam Bush’s set and make way for Lyle Lovett. More on that tomorrow.
photo by Scott Lakey, courtesy of Merlefest