Merlefest – Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
Though mainstage headliners tend to get the lion’s share of the attention in the days building up to Merlefest, almost inevitably it’s one of the acts playing multiple sets on the smaller stages that leaves the strongest impression once the event has passed. In recent years, Nickel Creek has stolen the show at least once; the same has been true for Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. This year, that torch was passed to the Avett Brothers.
An acoustic trio from Concord, North Carolina — only two of them are actually Avetts, with guitarist Seth and banjo player Scott joined by upright bassist Bob Crawford — these twentysomething lads hurtled themselves full-force into the hearts of the Merlefest faithful over the course of three performances during the four-day festival. Their unbridled enthusiasm spread like wildfire over the grounds from Friday through Sunday, the crowds growing significantly with each set they played.
The Avetts actually made their Merlefest debut last year, and although they raised some eyebrows, they didn’t quite make the kind of impact in 2004 that they did this time around. From the outset of their Friday appearance on the Austin Stage, they seemed on a mission. Wisely laying out most of their best material in this first show, they demonstrated the strength of their songwriting and their harmony singing, carrying the crowd with a charisma that overrode the minor but nagging problems they often have keeping their instruments in tune.
It’s no wonder that tuning is a problem for the Avetts, given the way they manhandle their acoustic instruments; Scott required banjo changes in all three sets, after breaking strings from playing the instrument “like an electric guitar,” he observed at one point. They may still have some gear concerns to address, but that head-on collision of traditional instrumentation with punk-rock musicianship is a big part of the Avetts’ aesthetic and appeal.
There’s more to this band than just crossbreed novelty, though. For every wild-eyed-and-crazy number in which they wail relentlessly and shout out lyrics at the top of their lungs, they’ve got a beautiful ballad to balance things out. And for every goofy little tune that might otherwise threaten to make them seem lightweight, there’s an indelibly memorable anthem, delivered straight, sweet and simple, just as anthems should be — most notably “Salvation Song”, with which they frequently close their set. “We came to break the bad, we came to cheer the sad, we came to leave behind the world a better way,” they declare in three-part harmony. And that’s precisely what they do.
If the Avetts were the knockout punch of this year’s Merlefest, they were hardly the only contenders among the new faces. Two other bands also making their second Merlefest appearance, up-and-coming internationalists the Greencards and Wilkes County-bred indie-rockers Roman Candle, both played multiple sets to appreciative audiences. Singer-songwriters Hayes Carll and Caroline Herring — a current and former Texan, respectively — impressed with strikingly different approaches (the contrast most apparent when they shared a songwriters’ circle bill on the Austin Stage). Two acts who filled in for Tony Rice upon late cancellations — the all-female ensemble Uncle Earl on the Watson Stage Thursday, and Thad Cockrell on the Cabin Stage Sunday — proved to be much more than just last-minute replacements. And Zane Williams made a name for himself by winning both the general and country categories in the festival’s annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.
Among big-name acts, the top draw came on Thursday, usually the festival’s slowest day. Loretta Lynn’s recent Grammy win for her Van Lear Rose album helped bring folks out before the weekend, although her performance was, by her own admission, not quite up to par. Lynn was under the weather and thus missing some of the magic in her voice; regardless, the audience clearly appreciated her effort, and she had fine backing from a cast that included fiddler Dirk Powell.
Friday night’s mainstage lineup lacked a top draw — Jerry Douglas is a first-rate musician and a longtime Merlefest favorite, but not really the ideal headliner — but things picked up a bit on Saturday evening with the Chieftains, who took advantage of the festival’s gathering of top-shelf pickers to re-create many of the tracks on their two recent Down The Old Plank Road collaborative albums recorded in Nashville. The Irish ensemble brilliantly demonstrated the connection between the traditional musics of the old country and the Appalachians, calling upon not only guest stars such as Bela Fleck, Del McCoury and Earl Scruggs, but also a young North Carolina dance troupe that supplemented the Chieftains’ own dancers. Merlefest’s storied Watson Stage has seen many a great musical moment over the years, but never anything quite like what the Chieftains presented.
As such, it was fitting to allow them an encore performance on Sunday, particularly since they traveled such a long way, and given that festivalgoers without four-day passes might not have had a chance to see the Saturday performance. The Chieftains were just one of many highlights on what was easily the strongest Sunday lineup the festival has ever had, with Alison Krauss & Union Station, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and Allison Moorer among the offerings. (Shifting some of Sunday’s wealth to the Friday night schedule might have been preferable.)
Moorer, who also did a guest turn with the Chieftains both Saturday and Sunday, attracted considerable attention with her sets on the Austin Stage and Cabin Stage, perhaps in part because the guy tagging along in the wings was new beau Steve Earle, who joined her for one duet at each performance. Her most memorable number, however, was a song from her most recent album titled “All Aboard”, which she explained was written in support of those who have chosen to speak out against the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “Sign up and get a flag/Wear it brightly, you can brag,” Moorer sang with a snarl, challenging those who would hold such a narrow view of patriotism.
In the end, though, Merlefest always comes down to Doc. The dear Watson family patriarch made his usual rounds throughout the four days, performing on almost all of the festival’s dozen stages at some point, in various configurations. A highlight was Saturday’s Walker Center gig by Frosty Morn, featuring Doc and grandson Richard Watson plus Joe Smothers, T. Michael Coleman and Bob Hill; their eclectic set list ranged from Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” to the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”.
And, always, every evening around twilight at the Watson Stage, Doc and his friend Bill Mathis played their “Tribute To Merle”. Doc’s 82 now, and someday he won’t be able to continue carrying on that tradition. There’s no doubt, though, the tradition will continue.