Merlefest – Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
The summer bluegrass festival season begins with this annual event, honoring Doc Watson’s son, Merle (who died in a 1985 tractor accident). Or at least the festival season begins; summer itself wasn’t quite on schedule, for Thursday night there were reports of two inches of snow up the road in Boone. By the weekend the sun had joined the party, and one could pay closer attention to the pressing details of scheduling, instead of seeking shelter and warmth.
Thursday night’s hard rain and chill winds dulled whatever benefits might have accrued from the presence of mainstage headliners Hootie & the Blowfish. Perhaps organizers sought to broaden their audience, or maybe the band sought to secure a long-term audience against the inevitable abatement of its short-term fame. In any event, theirs was a mostly honorable if unspectacular set that showcased a wide range of guest artists, and only one song immediately familiar from the radio. The ubiquitous Tim O’Brien followed, and the night closed with an hour-long set from Steve Earle, playing for the first time in several months with the Del McCoury Band.
Earle and the McCourys have worked out a three-hour show that highlights their collective and individual strengths. Cut down to a festival-length hour, both seemed barely warmed up, though the shivering audience (devoted though those who remained were, given the weather) was probably grateful things didn’t run longer. In any event, both Earle and the McCourys shone on smaller stages the next day.
Friday’s growing warmth revealed a half-dozen stages spread across the community college campus — only the mainstage is a permanent structure, with numbered plastic lawn chairs — augmented by tents filled with merchants, merchandise and food (the food booths are fund-raising opportunities for local charities). Most folks camp near the grounds (making the weather all the more daunting), which makes for plenty of music offstage as well. Theoretically alcohol free, Merlefest attracts grandparents and grandchildren, patchouli and Skoal, and a few people of color. From the petting zoo to the old-time stage, scheduled events appeal to that range of interests.
The consequence, naturally, is that no two people see the same festival. So much the better.
Friday offered an hour-long set from the McCoury Band, while Earle joined his mentor Guy Clark on the songwriter’s stage. Once again Del McCoury stumbled over the words to “Nashville Cats”, but otherwise it was a nimble, scintillating (if, again, too short) set that did nothing to suggest there might be a better bluegrass band working.
Earle and Clark brought friends along — Verlon Thompson (guitar) and Jamie Hartford (mandolin, mostly) — and traded songs. Clark took suggestions from the crowd, while Earle (as always) played whatever the mood suggested, sometimes singing harmony with Clark, sometimes stepping back to light his pipe. Earle’s son, Justin, even managed a pretty fair song — “Bye Bye Baby” — in an impromptu coming-out party, though he struggled with Clark’s guitar and stopped midway through, begged the crowd’s indulgence, and began again.
Clark returned to the same stage Saturday, adding Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien to his lineup but playing many of the same, predictable audience requests. While Earle offered a couple new songs, including a charming piece set in Ireland, Clark gave no clues to what his next album might sound like.
Earle made one final appearance, showing up at the old-time tent to watch Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell and John Herrmann play selections from Songs From Cold Mountain, and to listen as author Charles Frazier read a few paragraphs from his best-seller. Earle has added “Raleigh And Spencer” to his own set, so he joined the trio onstage for one of those unrehearsed (barely introduced) moments that make festivals special.
The smaller stages shut down around dusk, leaving the headliners to the mainstage. Friday night offered a New Grass Revival reunion of sorts, while Saturday evening the festival feted Earle and Randy Scruggs (with Marty Stuart as a special bonus). In both cases it was far more pleasant to sit around an obliging campfire and hear the music come pure and easy through the air and across the great field than to find one’s place amid the plastic chairs, or head backstage and listen to the chat of sponsors. Both evenings offered much respect and talent onstage, and frequent guest appearances (including Doc Watson). But beyond the questionable thrill of seeing famous people up close, little real musical magic came our way across the field.
Indeed, there was comparatively little magic during the days, despite much fine picking. The Seldom Scene had an early slot on the mainstage, but did little to argue for the continuation of that once great band in the absence of the late John Duffey. The Czech band Druha Trava (the name means “Second Grass”) proved versatile enough to add Chick Corea’s “Spain” into their set, but not wise enough to make it worth listening to.
Much of the fun, then, consisted in discovering just how many different lineups Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Jerry Douglas (appearing as both leaders and sidemen) could play with. At least once, O’Brien played on two different stages during the same time slot; Douglas even dressed up for his evening stint with Earl Scruggs.
The proceedings wound down early Sunday, with Lucinda Williams taking the mainstage late in the afternoon, joined (as she would be during her concluding Nashville dates) by Jim Lauderdale. A steady diet of touring and accolades has removed some of the drama from Williams’ set; gone was the tension, once almost a certainty, that something might break and the music could at any instant come cascading to a halt.
Instead, she offered a thoroughly professional set, filled with more than enough solos to showcase the virtuosity of her fellow musicians. A particularly extended version of “Joy” left one wishing the set had made room for more songs; but it was a bright, sunny day, and she may have been wise to settle for simply having fun.