Merlefest – Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
A seemingly endless procession of people snaked out the jammed entryway to Mayes Pit auditorium, streaming down the corridor of Hayes Hall, out the exit, down the sidewalk, and around the corner of the building. If there were a couple hundred people filling every seat in the room, there were probably twice that many in line, hoping to find any available space in the aisles, on the steps, by the doors, just to have a chance to witness a special session of music and dialogue featuring folk legend Pete Seeger, his renowned brother Mike Seeger, and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the Mammals.
Merlefest officials, however, were on edge. Concerned the small theater was already overcrowded, they implored that those not in chairs needed to leave, because fire-code regulations required for the aisles and stairs to be clear.
At which point Rodriguez-Seeger chimed in with a novel suggestion — “Can they be on the stage?” — leaving no doubt this authority-challenging heir-apparent is most certainly his grandfather’s grandson.
That was equally clear the following afternoon when Pete and Tao teamed up for a show at the “Little Pickers” children’s stage — which, fortunately, was outdoors and thus could accommodate the humongous throng that seemed to appear wherever Pete performed throughout the weekend. Their brief set delighted kids of all ages, culminating with a duet on a longtime staple of Pete’s repertoire that was perfect for Nicaragua-raised Tao: “Guantanamera”.
The Seeger clan helped give this year’s Merlefest a distinct emphasis on classic 20th-century folk music — along with that other first family of folk, the Guthries. Saturday night’s mainstage headliner was “Ribbon Of Highway/Endless Skyway”, a program of Woody Guthrie songs and stories featuring a variety of modestly-known contemporary songwriters — including Woody’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, who also performed several duo sets during the weekend with husband Johnny Irion.
Guthrie & Irion were among an influx of singer-songwriter duos in this year’s lineup, along with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson, and Darrell Scott & Wayne Scott. All of them delivered engaging and enjoyable performances, playing multiple sets on stages indoor and outdoor, large and small.
Welch & Rawlings tend to make it to Wilkesboro every other year and never fail to account for some of the festival’s most memorable moments. Their late-afternoon set on the mainstage Friday not only included a brilliant new song (likely titled “Later Than I Knew”), but also featured a cameo from Sunday headliner Emmylou Harris on “Orphan Girl” and the O Brother trio tune “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” (with Rawlings covering Alison Krauss’ part). The real kicker was their short Saturday-night set on the Cabin Stage with Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile sitting in for far-fetched covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (a transcendental success) and the Beatles’ “Baby You’re A Rich Man” (nice try but not quite).
Though Merlefest has admirably broadened its horizons in recent years, bluegrass remains at its center, with regulars such as Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan and Peter Rowan on hand as always. And, of course, there was host Doc Watson, playing with seemingly everyone at seemingly every stage during the course of the weekend, most poignantly for the “Tribute To Merle” song on the mainstage every evening in memory of his son.
Thursday proved one of the strongest opening days ever, in terms of both crowd size and musical quality. Mainstage headliner John Prine and his four-piece backing band charmed the audience from the start by opening with his classic “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery” back-to-back. They were happy to hear newer songs from last year’s Fair & Square album as well — and even (in this Red State) heartily cheered the notable line from “Some Humans Ain’t Human” about how “some cowboy from Texas starts his own war in Iraq.”
Also on hand Thursday were Merlefest 2005’s rising-star darlings the Avett Brothers, who graduated from the smaller stages to the mainstage as they inaugurated the festival with a bang in the midafternoon opening slot.
The young upstarts making the biggest impression across the festival grounds this year were the Mammals, a quintet fronted by Rodriguez-Seeger, Michael Merenda and Ruth Ungar (along with rhythm section Chris Merenda and Jacob Silver). Though grounded in the folk foundation of their forbears, and thus accepted by the traditionalists who have been coming to Merlefest for a couple of decades, the Mammals also connect directly with the growing contingent of teens and twentysomethings in attendance, thanks to their boundless energy onstage and their fondness for occasional blasts of gloriously amplified banjo feedback.
The Mammals’ Friday evening jam at the Walker Center with their Canadian compadres the Duhks almost assuredly marked the first time Merlefest had ever been served up a Nirvana song (“Come As You Are”, which they recorded on their recent disc Departure). Such a cover could’ve been mere novelty fare, but the Mammals’ rendition is in fact an inspired bit of boundary-breaking: Just as Nirvana drew a line from folk to punk by revving up Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, the Mammals rebuild the bridge from punk back to folk by casting “Come As You Are” as if it were also somehow originally an early-1900s folk tune that Cobain had updated decades later.
Back at the Mayes Pit gig with his grandfather and great-uncle, Rodriguez-Seeger summed things up rather nicely as he explained how, after being raised on folk in the family tradition, he finally heard the Who at age 17. His reaction was not a sudden about-face turn from one form to another, but rather a simple epiphany: “To me,” he explained, “it just seemed like the exact same thing.”