MerleFest hero John Cowan smokes as the Doobie bassist Friday night (photo by Ryan Snyder)
Twenty-four years feels like just another year in between the 20th and 25th milestones for MerleFest, but the prelude to the festival’s Silver Anniversary brought one of the best lineups in its history. More than that, every year that Doc Watson is still with us feels like a reason to celebrate. The 88-year-old living legend made his usual rounds, though it still felt like his sets were fewer and farther between than in years past. No matter, as the festival brought plenty of big names for one of the highest aggregate attendances ever.
MerleFest favorite John Cowan was credited with helping bring the Doobie Brothers to the festival for the first time, and the California country rockers sounded remarkably good as aging headliners go. Tom Johnston’s stoned croon isn’t quite as clutch as it once was, but his pushbroom ’stache has arguably never looked better. The harmonies were tight and the crowd was treated to all the hits, though the Doobies did run through three too many tracks from their new album World Gone Crazy. The first of which, “Nobody,” had the classic Doobie sound in every sense, but the next three just dragged as the audience begged for a “Black Water” or “China Grove.” This might be the time where you’d go get a beer, but that’s a challenge at a dry festival. Patience was a virtue, as a loooong string of hits covered the next hour.
It’s hard to imagine that any of the other 12 stages had too much action in the half hour before the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour on Saturday, as not a speck of green was visible in front of the stage. Thousands suffered unshaded on the hottest part of the day in anticipation for the fourth installment of one of MerleFest’s newest tradi tions, and guesses as to which album it would be still abound from the audience minutes before set time. The two most popular ones — the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty — were both validated by the presence of two drum kits on stage, but as the opening notes to “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” rang out, all speculation was laid to rest.
Pre-announced vocalist Joan Osborne handled the most of the singing duties for the album, one with great lyrical qualities, but far and away more renowned for its instrumental girth. She performed well for the most part, but Osborne just doesn’t have the charisma to carry that kind of show as the focal point. She looked disinterested during the long (albeit still abbreviated by more than 15 minutes) instrumental “Mountain Jam,” and during “Blue Sky” she simply sounded flat on the album’s most uplifting chorus. The there was her use of a lyric sheet, which raised the question of whether she was the right person for the job. You really needn’t be a hardcore fan of ABB to know Eat A Peach intimately.
The Waybacks seemed to have hit upon the magic formula for the Hillside Album Hour last year when the entire performance felt impulsive; a revolving cast of singers that included Jim Lauderdale and Elvis Costello each put a memorable stamp on different songs from the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The Wailin’ Jennys came on for “Sweet Melissa,” while pianist John R. Burr and drummer Larry Atamanuik of the Alison Brown Quartet held down the Hammond B3 and the second drum kit respectively for the entirety of the set. Still, there lacked an element of spontaneity that you never really knew who would show up to sing or to jam, even if it was surprising to hear the set concluded with “Whipping Post” as a followup to the docile album-ender “Little Martha.”
The mass of red-faced Hillsiders made their way through the Plaza after the Waybacks did their work, but most stopped short in awe of young Ranford Almond, the 11-year-old wunderkind from Browns Summit. It was a pretty shrewd move by his parents/handlers to put him on the stage at the exact time the most people would be funneled by the stage, and the ploy worked like a charm. Almond attracted one of the largest crowds at the little-frequented Plaza Stage all weekend, but it’s hard to know what the sweet, shy kid with the mellow voice and great finger work makes of all the attention. He certainly doesn’t show it on his face, but maybe that’s the mark of a real professional.
Lyle Lovett may have been the Saturday night headliner, but it was Sam Bush who was arguably the MVP of the evening. The mando master’s tie-dyed enthusiasm jarred the sleepy crowd awake during his early evening set before sitting in as a surprise guest with Lyle Lovett & his Acoustic Group. While Lovett, bassist Victor Krauss et al were deck out in suits and ties, Bush was his usual irreverent self, sporting a hoodie with his tie-die peeking out from underneath.
The unexpected pairing was like honey to the shutterflies in the crowd, a segment that seems to grow exponentially every year. And not with simple point-and-shoots, either; the festival doesn’t restrict SLRs to media. It’s guaranteed you’re going to see dozens of grayed photo hawks with 1-series Canons and L-lenses, sporting bucket hats and safari vests, all jockeying for position beneath the photo platform, makes MerleFest feel something like a birder summit with a slew of rare, captive species on display.
They had more than a few photo ops to take advantage of during the Midnight Jam; one that drew mixed opinions from the MerleFest traditionalists and the young’uns alike. On one hand, older fans bemoan that it’s become something for the younger people, with the common objection that the veteran jammers like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck (when he’s on site) or Jerry Douglas just don’t show up anymore. On the other, the Zac Brown-ization of the past couple of years is slowly changing the tenor of the event. Whereas impromptu jamming by great pickers has long been de rigeur, Brown’s hosting last year gave it a clearer shape by making the country cover more status quo, and the younger set’s grumbles about its return to nebulousness this time through were frequent during the wait for the shuttle bus afterwards.
Sam Bush jams with the hard-pickin’ Stephen Mougin during their Saturday night pre-headlining set. (photo by Ryan Snyder)
Still, this year’s host Casey Driessen did an outstanding job of curating a diverse array of players to come together, along with some great dancing by the Green Grass Cloggers, and Brown popped in for the token Merle Haggard cover (though Jim Lauderdale covered “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” with a lot more feeling on Sunday). It was a younger scene on stage and in the crowd though, but it there was a ton of energy created by collaborations between festival newbie Sarah Jarosz, Town Mountain, Bill Nershi, Drew Emmitt, Scythian and the Infamous Stringdusters. Even Levi Lowery was good for a quick snooze for the second year in a row.
Always the lightest day on the schedule, Sunday was nonetheless anchored by the weekend’s heavyweight Robert Plant, who had been teasing his festival appearances months before at the end of shows. Sandwiched between Plant and the morning’s Spirit of Sunday gospel set, however, was an afternoon of MerleFest staples playing sleepy sets. George Hamilton IV served as the festival’s unofficial Hank Williams historian, giving a 45-minute set of Hank Sr. staples and obscurities while relaying the stories behind them. One part lecture and one part quiet acous tic ramble, Hamilton mixed in ominous Luke the Drifter compositions with songs like “Mansion On the Hill,” which he said was penned in 10 minutes after record executive Fred Rose gave him an outline for a song and asked Williams to prove he was a songwriter.
No one would blame you if you chose to camp out in the open seating in front of the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre the rest of the day, only moving enough to angle your body toward the adjacent Cabin Stage in between main stage shows. Most of Sunday was dressed with repeats elsewhere on the grounds, but between a full set by the Infamous Stringdusters and the great Tim O’Brien, there was little room for wanting. As great a mandolin picker as O’Brien is — even Sam Bush calls him the greatest — watching his sets for the between-song banter can be just as pleasing. Case in point: After some furious picking alongside Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan during “Hangman’s Reel,” O’Brien’s appealed to the audience to visit him in the autograph tent after his set based on his “need to have thousands of shallow relationships.”
This may have been Plant’s first time to Wilkesboro, but his Band of Joy had a few veterans of its own. Darrell Scott, as wellknown to the MerleFest faithful as anyone can be, was made aware of the crowd’s appreciation for him at the end of his stirring rendition of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind.” For the first time in the set, the crowd shot to their feet to give the burly baritone with the voice like good bourbon a standing ovation, which left the rock legend Plant milling in the background looking mildly annoyed to say the least.
Not to be shown up by his (highly talented) sideman, Plant reacted with an on-the-fly programming change. Where the docile “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” would normally follow, the Band of Joy struck the first notes of the tour rarity “Misty Mountain Hop,” reminding the crowd that it was still his show and his band. Plant shed his mellowed rock legend subterfuge if only for a moment as he grabbed the mic stand and dug in to the song’s repeated outro. And you know what? He picked up his own standing ovation, lookingmore than a little satisfied while doing it.