merlefest: a highly subjective appreciation
I made the annual pilgrimage to Merlefest with three friends and my daughter, who lives and works in Beijing. She must have won the award for having come the greatest distance. It turned out that Saturday fit best into our schedules, and so we arrived at about 2:00 in the afternoon. Tony Rice was finishing up his set, and then we wandered first to catch a part of a concert by the Greencards (including the title piece from their Fascination), then a little Peter Rowan (“It Takes a Worried Man, To Sing a Worried Song”), and on to the Hillside Stage for the Album Hour.
This was, without question, the highlight of the day for me. The Waybacks were the core band, and the surprise selection was the Beatles’ Abbey Road. For the unitiated, Album Hour is an almost verbatim rendering of a classic rock piece. Beginning with “Come Together”, and concluding with “In the end, the love you make….”, the musicians gave a spirited interpretation. Beyond the Waybacks, the guests included Sarah Dugas of the Duhks, Elvis Costello, Jerry Douglas and Jim Lauderdale. It was phenomenal.
We then wandered back to the main (Watson) stage, and the evening featured first Doc Watson, then Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and finally Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes. Doc’s set was wonderful, as always, and all the more astonishing given longevity. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, which was an appropriate recognition of his contribution to American music—surely he stands alongside the great jazz, blues and folk artists of our time.
Steve Martin was a curious but popular selection. His humor was pitch perfect and he has had the good taste to surround himself with an ensemble that combines an abundance of talent, tradition and innovation. The highlight of his set, for me, was the Steep Canyon Rangers’ ” I Can’t Sit Still”, “Orange Blossom Special” (featuring the amazing fiddler/violinist Nicky Sanders) and, lastly, the encore “King Tut”, which surely sorted out the boomers, who knew the words, from the younger crowd, who did not.
I have seen the Steep Canyon Rangers several times, and they are worth checking out.
Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes followed. His set list included a number of selections from his newest work. He obviously appreciates the emerging connection with the festival, and represents the best of the crossover appeal that marks Merlefest.
This note miss so much that I did not catch—-Little Feat, Donna The Buffalo, Zac Brown, and others. It is almost more than a person can take in, overwhelming in the adundance of riches. The experience of the traditional and the cutting edge is definitely built into the design of the weekend, and one has the sense that a new generation is coming into its own—-I have sensed this in prior years with Nickel Creek and the Duhks, and this time around felt this with the Steep Canyon Rangers and the Greencards. And yet all of it is rooted in a person–Doc Watson—and one wonders how his passing (hopefully in the distant future) will affect the mission of this remarkable event.