Thursday, May 1, 2008

Merlefest 2008 - Review

Once again, for the twenty-first year, Merlefest presented a varied, interesting, exciting, engaging, diverse, and frustrating program of American and, increasingly, world music. Begun in 1988 when a few of the late Eddie Merle Watson’s friends came together for a benefit and memorial bluegrass festival, Merlefest has morphed into the largest and most complex music festival around. Sporting fourteen sound stages and total attendance over the four days approaching 80,000, the festival cannot be encapsulated or summarized in any reasonable way. What follows seeks to capture the personal highlights and low points for me and to highlight organizational improvements while pointing to possible issues still needing to be addressed in the future. Because the festival provides such a personal experience, I’ll also include some special ones from Irene.

Watson Stage Reserved Seating

This year the weather threatened throughout the festival. Fortunately, the clouds and threat of rain kept the grounds comfortably warm in the evening right through the festival. The loud and wet thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon provided relief from direct sunlight and heat, leaving muddy grounds but no real surprises for Merlefest veterans. Sunday, always a pretty mellow day anyway, was further dampened by the lowering clouds. Finally it began to drizzle during the Sparrow Quartet’s penultimate main stage set on Sunday afternoon turning into a steady rain and leaving precious few people to enjoy the much anticipated Dan Tyminski Band’s closing set. Nevertheless, this year’s weather was about what long-time Merlefest attendees expect. While the crowd seemed smaller to me than in the previous two years, this is purely subjective judgment. Festival officials tell me that their preliminary estimated total attendance was 76,900, slightly down from last year’s 79,000, but quite good considering the threatening weather and the price of gasoline.

Food Tent at Night

Musically the festival provided many more highlights than disappointments. In no particular order, I’ll point out some of my (our) highlights and disappointments. First, it’s worth noting that Merlefest is a highly personal experience. In fact, it can be 20,000 different festivals on any given day. Fourteen sound stages, dozens of vendors, lots of places for recreation and rest, and all the great people-watching make this an enormously rich four day weekend. All judgments are completely my own and Irene’s, and I am happy to have anyone disagree with me, but this is a report on our Merlefest. Yours is likely to have been completely different and the degree to which you are unhappy or happy with your festival lies largely with the choices you made.

Creekside Audience

We tended to concentrate our attention to three convenient musical venues – The Watson (main) Stage, Creekside, and Americana – with one very satisfactory trip up to The Lounge in Alumni Hall. In recent years we have avoided Hillside because of the long walk and huge, boisterous crowds assembled there for the interesting and varied jams. One of the great joys of Merlefest is always the unusual combinations of musicians brought together in jam situations. In addition to demonstrating to us all the principles we just spent four days learning from Pete Wernick in Jam Camp, these jams bring together performers no one would ever expect to see assembled on the same stage. Girls for Merle was a perfect example of this on Saturday afternoon. Imagine Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, and Sally Van Meter appearing on stage at the same time…and enjoying each other. During their delightful set, each of these luminaries provided solid and delightful performances without a hint of competition. Just plain wonderful stuff. On Friday afternoon, Ralph Stanley showed up for a performance featuring Doc Watson, David Holt, and T. Michael Coleman. Once again, the first generation of bluegrassers represented themselves well and provided a rare treat. Tim O’Brien appeared at the Creekside Stage with The Infamous Stringdusters for a delightful set of both their music as well as some jamming to traditional bluegrass songs. Mando Mania on Saturday afternoon put some of the greatest mandolin players in the world on the stage at once. Tony Williamson hosted Darin Aldridge, Mike Compton, Sierra Hull, Rebecca Lovell, Barry Mitterhoff, James Nash, Tim O’Brien, Tom Rozum, and Sam Bush in an hour-long jam. It sure would have been nice to see Alan Bibey on that stage. Nash offered an interesting exercise based on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in which players started with a whole section and then on each succeeding go-round cut the section in half. In theory, it should have ended with each picker playing one note in rapid succession through the whole song. Despite the predicted train wreck, it was an exciting and enjoyable piece or work appreciated by all who were there or who participated.

Crowd for Doc Watson at Americana

Other highlights for me included The Infamous Stringdusters with sets on three major stages on two days before heading off for an appearance at The Grand Ol’ Opry and then a trip to Europe. Blue Highway had a fine set on Friday afternoon. It’s easy to take this great band for granted, since they’ve been together without a change for fourteen years. They remain fresh and lively presenting music that manages to be cutting edge progressive while paying due deference to the founding musical ideas of bluegrass music. Laurie Lewis and her band had a very good, strong set on the main stage on Thursday and then followed it up with great courage, taking the stage right after a big thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon. When the sound board went dead, the band stepped to the front of the stage and offered an un-amplified acoustic set until power was restored. A major highlight for both Irene and me was the performance of Pete Wernick and Flexigrass. Pete has assembled a band composed of drum, bass, vibraphone, clarinet, and banjo as well as his wife Joan singing in a pop style I had no idea she had the voice for. The music, a sort of jazz-bluegrass fusion was pleasant to the ear and challenging to senses unused to this instrumental combination. It was wonderful stuff, and we’re looking forward to purchasing their CD. Flexigrass also hosted a jam, adding multi-instrumentalist, music historian David Holt and Cheick Hamala Diabate from Mali playing the n’goni, an ancestor of the banjo. The music was delightful, interesting, and varied, much like a cleansing of the palate.

Photographers at Americana

Cabin Stage with Infamous Stringdusters

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a minor hit last year, earning them an opportunity for complete sets on the Watson Stage, Americana Stage, and Cabin Stage. Their main stage set also featured Joe Thompson, an elderly black fiddler who had deeply influenced their development. It provided a terrific hour of entertaining musical history. Two sets of young comers let bluegrass fans know the music isn’t only for traditionalists. Sierra Hull and Highway 111 featured the sixteen year old mandolin virtuoso along with young Cory Walker on banjo. Hull also appeared in Mando Mania and Girls for Merle, keeping her busy all weekend. The Lovell sisters, a trio of fine young musicians, were also in frequent evidence. Ruthie Foster, a fine young blues singer from Texas, made a brief appearance on the Cabin Stage, where she quickly captured the audience. The Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven put on a great set on Sunday morning. Brown is a wonderfully creative jazz banjo player who has expanded the expectations for her instrument, while Joe Craven plays fiddle and mandolin along with doing some of the most creative percussion work around, using anything poundable as an instrument. Craven’s dynamism brings extraordinary vitality to his performances, while Brown’s excitement comes from her very inventive banjo play. Grammy winner Tim O’Brien’s solo set on the main stage, multiple Grammy winner Doc Watson everywhere, and the final set of the weekend played by Dan Tyminski were all very fine and lived up to expectations.

Vendor's Row

Main Stage Area

Perhaps the highlight for us of the weekend was the performance of The Circuit Riders. Members of this band were the core of The Country Gentlemen at the time Charlie Waller died. Unable to keep the name, which is owned by Charlie’s son Randy, The Circuit Riders have been playing as a regional band in the Carolinas for the past few years. At a late afternoon indoor set in The Lounge of Alumni Hall, this little known group threw down one of the great bluegrass sets, bringing the audience of a couple of hundred fans to their feet and wowing everyone there. They followed this fine performance with a Gospel set at Creekside on Sunday morning, featuring guest artist Brooke Justice, mandolinist Darin Aldridge’s fiancĂ©e. In both their major sets they showed their potential for bluegrass stardom. Aldridge, in particular, is a standout on mandolin, well deserving his place in Mando Mania. Irene, particularly, thought this set, along with the Stringdusters with Tim O’Brien, and Flexigrass were highlights of the festival for her.

Little Picker's Audience

There were, of course, bands we didn’t much enjoy. Recognizing this as a matter of taste, I still want to mention a few we found less than satisfactory. Old Crow Medicine Show, a band we had looked forward to seeing, seemed loud and un-melodic, not offering much of interest to us. Similarly, Donna the Buffalo, who we have come to loath, were simply loud and misplaced on the Watson stage late afternoon slot. This jam/dance band belongs on the Hillside Stage and the Dance Stage where their style can encourage dancing and the kind of enthusiastic response their fans can give. Their volume quickly became discomforting for us. The Avett Brothers are loud and undisciplined, although they have a loyal following. Peter Rowan has long outlived his hippy base and needs a new act. I can’t quite understand the musical marriage of Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, an act which gives lip service to bluegrass history while playing often interesting rock with Hornsby at the Steinway Grand, an instrument that seldom graces the Watson stage. Finally, The Sparrow Quartet, featuring Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee played a too long set of discordant modern music, much of it in Chinese, that legitimately belongs in the Felt Auditorium of Lincoln Center, but which drove much of the audience looking forward to hearing the Dan Tyminski band away. Merlefest is just plain the wrong setting for this band. In the end, though, each of these bands had its adherents and our choice to stay to hear them was ours. If we didn’t enjoy them, we could easily have moved to another venue, except that many of these bands had prime slots on the Watson Stage. Taste, however, is personal and we heard much more music to our taste than that we didn’t enjoy. Even the music we found not to our taste, gave us a broader perspective on the range of music available. Artistically, Merlefest turned out to be another success.

Audience at The Lounge

Organizationally, the Merlefest staff addressed many of the issues emerging last year as festival leadership changed and sought to make changes in the event. Merlefest faces a real problem. How can a mature festival attracting something like 80,000 people a year to a community college campus in the foothills of the Smokies maintain its traditions of rural simplicity and homegrown charm while offering a broad variety of American music appealing to a range of tastes, ages, and backgrounds? Wilkes County is a hot bed of homegrown traditional musical talent leavened by a sprinkling of true innovation. The Wilkes Acoustic/Folk Society sponsors a set of pickin’ tents where all kinds of jamming are encouraged. Unfortunately, these tents are wedged in between the Dance Tent and the Traditional Tent making it difficult for the pickers to hear themselves. Similarly, a new venue called The Plaza, locate directly in the route to the Hillside Stage, supposedly offers an opportunity for bands to get experience performing on a live sound stage, but drew relatively few people who came to listen while many traipsed through the location on their way to other events. Meanwhile, the festival filled the Plaza with scheduled events, reducing the opportunity for pick-up bands and un-known groups to offer to perform.

Cheika Hamala Diabate

Generally, walking patterns between venues and exit aisles to the shuttle buses were greatly improved. Increased numbers of buses operating on a continuous schedule made arrival and departure much easier than last year. Scheduling of bands on the main stage assured that many people would leave early, while major attractions at the Dance Tent kept others late into the night, thus leveling the evening exodus. Some venues, like the Little Pickers area were increased in size and scope, providing still more entertainment for young people. A particular delight was Albeti’s Flea Circus. In addition to providing opportunities for young people to perform, the Little Pickers Tent scheduled adult performers specializing in shows for children. This was the best year ever for short lines and clean porta-johns. As always, the portables were clean and frequently emptied. They were well-placed and, for me, uncrowded. Lines in the food tent seemed less long, while at least one additional fast food facility was placed on the grounds, reducing the lines. An additional artist “shake and howdy” autograph tent was provided, giving easier access to musicians, and the location was moved away from the Merlefest Mall, reducing the crush there.

Band at Little Pickers

There are still a few problems that need to be addressed. There is some sound leek between venues. I suspect this issue cannot be resolved, but certainly the placement of the Wilkes Acoustic/Folk Society tents can be re-visited. The large numbers of people carrying instruments around the grounds suggest there are many people wanting to jam. Sound at the main stage area seemed too loud to us at our very well positioned seats. We’ve noticed that some sound systems provide secondary speakers away from the front with an electronic delay system to make the sound hit each ear in the audience simultaneously. I have no idea whether such systems would work with the huge speaker system at the Watson Stage, but sound was clearly superior at Creekside. We thought the sound at Americana was harsh.

Creekside Stage with Flexigrass Jam

On the whole, Merlefest 2008 turned out to be another wonderful musical experience for us. As we wandered the grounds, we found we were seeing increasing numbers of people we have come to know and like. People whose seats adjoin ours have become old friends. We enjoy seeing their children grow up and spread their wings as the years pass. The family and friends environment that persists in this very large and mostly very well organized festival remains one of Merlefest’s greatest assets. The management of the festival should do everything they can to retain this quality, nurture it, and cherish the results of caring for customers and providing for their needs.