Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Merlefest 2009 - Final Assessment

Docabilly Set on Watson
It’s funny how Merlefest means different things to each person attending or performing. I’ve never made it up to Hillside for the annual Saturday afternoon event called the Hillside Album Hour, this year hosted by the Waybacks and featuring cover of the Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” album with assists from a large and varied crowd of musicians. Just not my thing, but one of my young FB friends says in a post that Emmylou Harris appearing to sing “Wild Horses” is a highlight of her twenty-two years of attending. Those attempting to assess a given year of Merlefest need to keep this at the front of their minds – this event is too large for any one person to encompass. If a person attending the event can’t find more great music to see and hear than can be managed in four days, it’s his or her fault. The range is huge and varied. My view comes through the eyes of a sixty-seven year old man who tries to be open to the new while having definite prejudices in favor of certain kinds of music and certain bands. That being said, let’s take a look at my Merlefest 2009.

Audience at Grascals Late Afternoon Set

Emcee Cindy Baucom with Terry Baucom and Jamie Dailey


Flea Prepares to Dive from Ladder
into Small Bottle at
Alberti's Flea Circus

Despite claims from Merlefest’s publicist, it appeared to me that attendance was down considerably, at least if that judgment is made from the number of people in the reserved seats at the Watson Stage or the crowd across the lawn behind them. On the other hand, stages like Creekside, Hillside, and Americana seemed crowded for many of the bands appearing during the day. Since we’re cutting back by buying less food, no CDs, no t-shirts, and no raffle tickets, I didn’t spend as much time at those venues as I have in previous years. Nevertheless, there were never lines at the raffle tables, and the food lines seemed short or non-existent. The Expo tent, where high end instruments and gear are sold, seemed relatively un-crowded. I guess we’ll have to wait until the final report to learn about attendance. When those figures come, however, remember that they don’t represent paid attendance, but count nearly every person who comes onto the grounds each day.

Doc Watson Arrives at the Festival - Thursday


Dancin' Dave & Wife Lynn

Dance to the Peter Rowan Band
in Front of the Jumbotron

Peter Rowan
Merlefest appears to run like clockwork. Such apparent efficiency does not come easily. I chatted with one vendor who told me he’d be coming back to Wilkesboro a little more than a week after this year’s festival ended to participate in an assessment and would be able to count on at least nine more visits before coming to set up his operation next year. Coordinating artists, volunteers, vendors, sound, participating local organizations, transportation to and from dozens of different places in town, cleaning of porta-john facilities, food deliver, emcee hiring and training, lighting, delivery of sand for sand sculpture, youth activities, the selection of vendors, sponsors, and more is a truly massive effort. Despite the number of people working and the difficulty of the task, professional staff and volunteers appear to maintain their good dispositions. Smiles are the rule. I ran into top Merlefest management at work all over the Wilkes Community College campus. Festival director Ted Hagaman tells me Merlefest has no full time staff members. All are employees of Wilkes Community College and carry a number of other responsibilities in addition to this important event. Staff is busy, but they all had time for a brief chat or at least a cheery wave and a smile as they headed for their next task.

Expo Tent & Food Tent

Volunteers at Bag Check - Main Gate

Jerry Douglas & Travis Tritt
Weather this year was the best we’ve encountered in seven years of attending, if sunny and hot is good weather. It rained lightly on Friday evening, the thunder and lightning forcing shutting down the sound system for about an hour. Otherwise, the skies were clear; it was hot during the day and warm in the evening. The usual damp chill cascading off the surrounding bluffs into the plain on which the Watson Stage is placed was not a problem. We brought down less bad weather gear each day. The hot weather necessitated careful attention to sun screen and staying hydrated, which the emcees carefully and frequently urged. It would be a nice addition if Merlefest were to provide a misting area where festival goers could get wet and cool their skin. Grey Fox, held in mid-summer on open fields, offers this amenity, which is much used and appreciated. Amazingly, vendors never ran out of ice, tea, lemonade, or water, so staying comfortable was less difficult. Also, a number of the college’s buildings provide performance venues (Mayes Pit, The Lounge, Walker Center) which are air conditioned. When I stuck my head into Mayes Pit, a lovely small auditorium in the business building, it was filled to capacity for a relatively minor presentation. Many college buildings are open during the festival. There were always people sitting on the floor to cool off or using the bathrooms in these buildings. Nevertheless, not having to fight rain and cold was a true gift for the festival.

Del McCoury Band

Crowd at Hillside for Album Hour - Saturday

Rainbow over Food Tent
Over the years, Merlefest has endeavored, successfully, to provide for increasing amounts of green space, opening the main campus and increasing the sense of spaciousness. Vendors have been spread out and place on paved parking areas. Nevertheless, the distance between Creekside Stage and Hillside may be more than half a mile. Being at Merlefest means doing a lot of walking. Our friend Tut Taylor and his wife Lee hosted the Plaza Stage, so we took several walks up there to visit with them and see what was going on there. The Plaza, located between three major buildings gives the impression of an urban setting here in rural Wilkes County, and the white cements reflects glare and heat. It’s also the main thoroughfare to the popular Hillside Stage where many loud and rocky performances are held, most notably the Saturday afternoon Album Hour, so it’s a busy place. People traversing the Plaza will always find a performer on this small stage, often with very pleasant or surprising sounds. It was there on Sunday afternoon we finally caught up with Dr. Tommy Bibey in an impromptu performance with Steve Barker. We’ve attended increasing numbers of performances at the Creekside Stage, a comfortable venue with a creek running along behind it. There’s cool shade there, plenty of grass to sit on in a natural amphitheater. It’s perhaps the most intimate of the major venues on campus.
Mando Mania and Crowd
from
Behind Creekside Stage

Crowd Watching Mando Mania

Expo Tent
Artistically, the lineup contained almost all that Americana music fans seeking diversity and entertainment could want. Of course there were favorites missing. Certainly, some of the old standbys are showing their age. Indubitably, it was possible to attend a performance and be disappointed. Joyfully, there were returns of performers who hadn’t been seen for several years. Thankfully, new and rising bands were making their Merlefest debuts. Hopefully, many of these will be seen in force during the coming years. Gratefully, most of the performances were greeted with enthusiasm and grace.

Emmylou Harris

Brian Simpson (Cadillac Sky), Kym Warner & Carol Young (Greencards)
Emmylou Fans
A Face in the Crowd

Signs and Announcements Say
Don't Do it.
But it's Hard to Stop
Merlefest made history this year by including Mexican music within the Americana categorization. With the Hispanic population growing in the U.S. and Mexican influences showing up everywhere, it’s about time. Linda Ronstadt featuring Los Camperos De Nati Cano, a large and tuneful Mariachi band as well as eight graceful and beautifully costumed dancers, presented a lively and interesting program of song and dance, mostly in Spanish. Ronstadt is remembered by many as a rocker and country singer, as well as the star of a delightful version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta “The Pirates of Penzance.” She has won numerous awards in a variety of genres. Recently, her work has focused on the music of her Mexican heritage. Her show was selected as the closing act for Merlefest on Sunday afternoon. Sunday afternoon at festivals is extraordinarily difficult to schedule. In the time we’ve been attending Merlefest, only Alison Krause has kept a large crowd through the closing, and she held over 20,000 people on campus. We were extremely disappointed at the small crowds on Hillside for the Greencards and the Gibson Brothers’ Merlefest debut on Sunday afternoon, and heard the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Quintet also attracted a small audience at Creekside. I suspect the small audiences earlier in the afternoon were created by the Ronstadt’s weak draw. The audience was polite and attentive, but lost interest long before the end and began to leave. Ronstadt herself does not have the voice she had only a few years ago, and appeared to be relying upon a television monitor placed in the center of the stage to assist her with the lyrics. The dancers, their dresses creating flowing fabric flowers, added color and liveliness to the performance.

Linda Ronstadt

Ronstadt Audience

Dancers

I was also disappointed by Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt on Thursday’s closing. Peter Rowan mailed in his performance, not even caring enough about his audience to have his band know the words. (I've been told by both Pete Wernick, who I deeply respect, and Jody Stecher, who plays mandolin in the Rowan Bluegrass Band as well as on other Rowan projects, that I haven't been completely fair to Mr. Rowan. Stechler has suggested that maybe it's just that I don't like his music, and maybe he's right. I'm happy to withdraw my comment and to apologize to the Rowan band. Difficulties with the sound system may have contributed to what I thought I saw. I'll leave the rest of my reaction to taste and lack of sufficient background to appreciate what Peter Rowan does.) Dailey & Vincent gave their usual high quality show, but Merlefest may not be their venue. Emmylou Harris, preceding Sam Bush on Saturday drew a good crowd, but seemed a bit tired. Her songs are pretty lugubrious and all seem to be in the same tempo and, perhaps, key. She was followed by Sam Bush, who always revs up the audience, but in order to fill the seats in the reserved seat area, emcee Martin Anderson had to invite people seated in the general admission area to move forward, an unusual move, as these seats are usually closed to general admission at 5:00 PM. The best evening performance came on Friday evening when Mountain Heart with the great Tony Rice led off the evening followed by the Del McCoury Band. In recent years, Del has sung songs from his newest recordings before taking requests. This informality and flexibility of this approach charms and attracts an audience.

Tony Rice

Sam Bush
Merlefest has increasingly become known for the variety of very interesting jams that can only happen at a place where so many excellent groups are brought together. The Welcome Home Super Jam and the New Generation Super Jam, both held rather early in the morning, while young revelers at River’s Edge and other campgrounds are still sleeping it off, offer some of the most interesting and engaging performances. Bands performing at these jams can then be seen in full sets at various locations across campus. It’s occurred to me that holding some of these Super jams with a mixture of seasoned and newer performers in the evening might be both exciting and a good draw. One of the most exciting moments of recent years at Merlefest occurred a few years ago during one of these jams when it became clear that five members of the New Grass Revival were on stage at once. When they stepped to the front and sang two of their classic songs, a palpable thrill ran through the audience. It was one of those classic moments that, for me, characterizes the special nature of Merlefest.

Missy Raines & the New Hip at Austin Stage

Sierra Hull & Highway 111
Each year Merlefest provides pleasant and surprising introductions and reunions. It was particularly nice to see and hear the Kruger Brothers back after several years’ absence and performing at a number of venues. It’s been fun watching Sierra Hull mature and her band coalesce over the past three years, and we look forward to her continued emergence. Cory Walker and Clay Hess in her band, Highway 111, are excellent. On the other hand, Dry Branch Fire Squad has only appeared at Merlefest once in its thirty years of existence. It’s a perfect band for this venue and has sufficient material for multiple performances, including a great Creekside performance on Sunday morning.

Phoebe Hunt of Belleville Outfit

The Gibson Brothers at Hillside
The surprise of the festival, for me, was a fine band called The Belleville Outfit. Their swinging sound combined Texas, Cajun, Country, Bluegrass, and Jazz influences into and exciting performance. We were very happy to see the wonderful Gibson Brothers make their Merlefest debut. It’s long overdue for a band whose last four CDs have charted number one in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and whose sound expands the definition of bluegrass music while always remaining true to its traditions. The Darin & Brook Aldridge Quintet only appeared once, on Sunday afternoon at Creekside, but they appeared together with the Circuit Riders several other times. These two will bear close watching in coming years. Bearfoot sounded and looked good. The Farewell Drifters have improved vastly since we saw them at IBMA last fall and will continue to improve. Mountain Heart has reconstituted itself after losing key members a couple of years ago and is re-emerging as a hugely entertaining band and expanding the idea of bluegrass at the same time. There just isn’t time to highlight all the fine performers appearing at Merlefest.

Scythian at Americana

Americana Audience

In sum, Merlefest is large, crowded, expensive, and consistently entertaining. It seems to be at its best when it combines startling new and ground breaking acts with tried and true performers who are familiar to the diverse crowd. As I look back on the four days just past as well as trying to put our seven years of attendance at Merlefest into some perspective, I continue to see it as one of the most satisfying musical experiences we encounter during the year. We always get to hear bands we’ve never heard before, see performers we’ve heard about but never seen, and re-visit musical greats from the near and not so near past. Over the entire experience, the spirit and generosity of Doc Watson still pervades, but his body and voice are now weakened and we can only wish him well. We can also wish that his vision and openness to the new and different along with his respect for the tried and traditional can still co-exist at Merlefest.

Doc Watson

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