Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Merlefest 2010 - Assessment

Crowd at Main Stage - Sunday

With its move towards a younger demographic, Merlefest is (or at least should be) faced with something of a dilemma.  The event grew out of a celebration of the life of Eddy Merle Watson and has become a great institution largely through the musical tastes and sensibilities of Merle’s elderly, revered, and universally admired father Doc Watson.  Doc’s taste is broad and eclectic.  A singer and player of old time, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, jazz, and more, Doc’s interests range far and wide.  He took the guitar and raised it to a new level now copied in many genres. His taste and gentle humility are everywhere admired.  As he declines, a problem faces Merlefest.  The hard working and able staff of Wilkes Community College who produce the festival and have benefitted from its non-profit status to build an institution larger and better supported than many such schools in rural areas, and Lowe’s Incorporated, now the festiva’s corporate sponsor, must clarify and strengthen the focus of their festival while keeping it diverse and interesting to a contrasting and avid constituent base.  How can the event continue to honor its founders and early builders while attracting a younger and differently attuned audience to assure its health and success long into the future?

Little Pickers Area
It would be foolish and self destructive for Merlefest to try to deny the importance of rock-influenced country music as well as electronic amplification and electric instruments in contemporary music.  Country music, Southern Rock, Techno-pop and world music are clearly with us to stay, and belong at Merlefest beside older and longer established forms.  At the same time, the festival would be committing a cultural sin of huge proportions, should it continue to change its balance much further toward the trendy and sometimes tasteless packaged and processed products of contemporary pop culture.  Here’s an overview of the Merlefest I attended, keeping in mind, of course, that Merlefest is always about 20,000 different festivals, at least one for every person stepping onto the grounds of Wilkes Community College.

Audience for Doc Watson at Traditional Stage
The Crowds attending Merlefest this year were as large and enthusiastic as any I’ve seen in our seven years of attending, and the Artist Relations Team, as well as the improving economy, deserves recognition for this.  The crowds tested the capacity of the College at every venue, and the campus was shown capable of bearing the burden without undue strain. Nevertheless, this year’s crowd filled the campus to near capacity.  Despite the crowds, the toilet facilities were always kept clean, in my experience, as lines were short and cleanout trucks always on the go. I wonder why the  two porta-johns usually available at Creekside were not there this year.  Lines at the food tent, except at meal time felt reasonable.  Unfortunately, the Merlefest Gift Shop was said to have run out of t-shirts and other memorabilia early.  Perhaps a lack of confidence on the part of the organizers after last year’s difficult year can explain this.

Seating Behind Reserve Seat Area

Despite being quite crowded, the general atmosphere at Merlefest this year was very positive.  I believe that much of this is a result of the careful checking at the gate to try to eliminate alcohol from the mix.  Another factor is the consideration that most smokers showed in limiting themselves to smoking in the designated areas. There seemed to be much less smoking and fewer people flouting the no smoking prohibition this year than in past years.  Smokers clustered thickly in the well marked, designated smoking areas, creating thick clouds that were difficult for some to navigate past.  This is a small discomfort to endure for the pleasure of not having to cough through performances.  I heard that next year the Wilkes Community College campus will be completely smoke free.  One can only hope this prohibition will apply during Merlefest and be enforced. 

Austin Stage

This year’s weather was hot and clear during the days and only on Thursday night was it chilly enough to require significant layering up.  Saturday and Sunday were so warm as to present a health risk for fans not careful to stay hydrated.  Water was available for sale at a reasonable rate of $2.00 per bottle at many stations around the campus.  Nevertheless, it was quite hot.  One festival we attended provided a misting tent where hot attendees could be cooled by a gentle misting of water filling the air. This amenity might be a good service for Merlefest to provide. 

Campus from Above
Jamming has been a feature of Merlefest since its inception in 1988.  More than any other genres I’m aware of, bluegrass and jazz are forms where musicians from a variety of bands and backgrounds come together to improvise music that turns out to be exciting and cohesive.  The jam is a characteristic feature of these genres.  It has been emblematic of Merlefest that organized  jams bring musicians who seldom get the opportunity to pick together are scheduled for many stages.  This year such planned jams were notably absent on the main Watson Stage.  With the exception of Pete Wernick’s Flexigrass jam, which brought together members of bands like Donna the Buffalo, Missy Raines and the New Hip, and the Peter Rowan Band under Pete’s gentle leadership and the annual Mando Mania (always a huge success), there were few organized jams.  Never having attended the Album Hour on the Hillside, I would, nevertheless, include this extraordinary event as a jam.  However, I was told by a musician from a high profile contemporary band that the ever popular Midnight Jam was much more a serial performance by invited bands than a real jam, with the jamming taking place back stage, where only musicians were privy to it.  Reunion bands and young band jams were completely absent from the main stage.

The Hillside Stage

The Music at Merlefest this year was of an exceptionally high quality and continued to represent the kind of diversity upgraded to contemporary standards Doc’s original vision suggests.  Of course, there was music that didn’t serve to please everyone all the time, but why should I love every form of music and each band I saw?  There was almost always another choice I could move to for a change of sound and I almost never found a time when there wasn’t music that pleased me being played.  Often, unfamiliar music surprised and jolted me to a new consciousness.  A commenter on this blog noted that one of the great strengths of Merlefest is its ability to introduce new and interesting bands and combinations to the mix. This year’s shows combining the Lee Boys with the Travelin’ McCourys as well as Steve Martin’s wonderful hour with The Steep Canyon Rangers were splendid examples. I’ve already written about a severe lapse in taste by a performing duo and the lapse of booking judgment this represented. ‘Nuff said.  

 Sam Bush

The Scheduling of bands at Merlefest represents an act of organizational legerdemain approaching genius.  To bring hundreds of performers together for four days on fifteen stages and keep it all well-coordinated and moving along is a task well beyond my administrative comprehension.  In its selection of venue and the choice of times for performances, the Booking, Logistics, and Production team of John Adair, Emily Shumate, and Melissa Stanley deserve a standing ovation.  The fact that they are never seen and their names only seldom heard stand as a testimony to their effectiveness.  

Doc Watson Receives Honorary Degree
The use of venues to meet different purposes is particularly interesting.  For instance, the most remote and difficult to get to stage is Hillside, a steep climb that nevertheless seats thousands of people.  During the day Hillside is almost completely devoted to youth oriented, rock influenced, loud sounding bands.  The location assures that people wanting to hear these bands who have the strength to get to the venue will be able to enjoy them. By contrast, The Walker Center, also a bit remote, can be reached by using a series of elevators and gentle ramps where less mobile music lovers aew able to enjoy its air conditioning and comfortable theater seats.  Walker Center seats 1100 people.  Bands scheduled in Walker Center tend often to be more interesting to an older and more reflective crowd.  It might be a good idea to provide shuttle buses from, for instance, beside the Americana stage to Walker Center to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get there.  It’s a good venue for a less agile person to go for entire days in cool comfort.  

Two Musical Traditions 
Jens Kruger and Rob McCoury
The Watson Stage, with its sixty rows of reserved seats, is open to all until 5:00 P.M.  Afterwards it is available only to those holding reserve seat tickets.  This stage has the capacity to eat up the efforts of even very popular bands during the daylight hours, but as evening approaches the major show bands and featured performers show their stuff there.  As the evening progresses, the music becomes increasingly loud and appeals to a younger and hipper crowd.  This works well, because those wishing to hear, for instance, Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers or Sam Bush can then leave before being assaulted by the Zac Brown Band or Little Feat.  Few people actually arrive for the morning programs beginning around 10:00 A.M. and manage to stay until near midnight.

Inside Walker Center
A reader wrote to ask me whether I actually thought the festival has made significant changes in the demographic it seeks to reach or whether we (those of us the age to have attended the first Merlefest) were merely getting older.  Good question!  Let’s call it a major adjustment.  The tastes and musical inclinations of those early attendees were formed by traditional bluegrass music and its exciting moves into the rock era through the music of Doc Watson and newgrass father Sam Bush, a close friend Eddy Merle Watson, after whom the event is named. I guess the answer to the question is “Yes.”  That is, we’ve grown older and if Merlefest wished to remain strong and vital it must reach out to the musical tastes of those in the 18 – 40 demographic.   They are always a core group for consuming music, and they have the money to spend.  Neuro scientist Daniel Levitin (This is Your Life on Music and The World in Six Songs) has argued that the music we hear and love as adolescents, when we’re going through puberty, becomes the music we respond to throughout our lives.  If  he’s right, and I think he is, then Merlefest needs to change the music it programs in order to assure its continued survival and growth.  And therein lies the dilemma.

In the Expo Tent

Your Intrepid Blogger Doing His Thing

Photo by Mike Lane 
Merlefest is more than a music festival. At its core the festival celebrates the American spirit in music. Music is a deeply political and social experience. For the most part this festival succeeds in reducing political or generic conflict while avoiding the daily stresses of partisan politics. It’s something of a miracle that each year thousands of people from significantly different backgrounds and cultures meet at Wilkes Community College for a celebration of their similarities rather than their differences.  Because our interests lie towards the bluegrass side, we hear our friends bemoaning the fact that there is insufficient bluegrass played, but I suspect adherents of every other kind of music showcased at Merlefest say the same thing.  The wonder and delight of this event is the co-existence of so many musical formats and the wonderful surprises that pop up when they’re least expected.  It’s most important, however, for Merlefest to remain an authentic reflection of the people’s tastes while seeking to avoid the packaged glitz and over-production of Nashville country-pop while keeping the entire event family friendly.
In the end, we had a great time and look forward to seeing you at Merlefest 2011.

Doc Watson