Doc’s Day: Saturday at MerleFest

by Ryan Snyder’ 

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“What an absolutely perfect day,” said a solemn Dave Wilson of Chatham County Line during the Raleigh roots foursome’s Saturday afternoon set on MerleFest’s Cabin Stage. Most customary definitions of “perfect” would preclude the gray, dreary, utterly sodden day in late April that he had termed as such, but as Wilson gazed at the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre, his characterization was implicit. The sky cried all day and into the night for Doc and Rosa Lee Watson — and every so often the performers on stage did too — but the first MerleFest without the corporeal presence of either was not entirely a collection of heavy hearts, but a fond, festive remembrance.

Of course, they still had the best seats in the house saved for them. A cushiony old rocking chair bearing a sign that said “Reserved for Rosalee (sic) Watson” and a sturdy wooden seater right beside it for Doc sat stage right all weekend, unattended but for the earnest glances sent their way by Sam Bush throughout the Doc Watson Tribute set Saturday evening. In a weekend full of Doc nostalgia, the 90-minute merry-go-round of his closest friends, immediate collaborators and most fervent admirers was the definitive compliment to Watson’s music. The set presented more than a dozen of his favorite tunes with rarely a repeated arrangement. There were trim, agile quartets led by Sam Bush and Watson’s most tenured accompanist, bassist T. Michael Coleman, and feature spots from unknown corners of Doc Watson lore, and lonesome a capella by the Avett Brothers, but its most memorable times came in the form of the abundant cluster jams that Watson cherished.

Sam Bush recalled in an interview weeks prior that Watson had implemented his own methodology for leading these jams — not of novelty, but of necessity — by calling out the next soloist’s name, a practice he seemed determine to incorporate despite how intuitive eye contact is to the sighted. The tribute set at its most lavish saw Bush and the core band of Coleman, Jeff Little, Bryan Sutton, Jack Lawrence joined by lap steel master Jerry Douglas, John McEuen and Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, alternately featuring Jim Lauderdale and John Cowan on vocals. Bush as the bandleader had little choice but take Watson’s methods to heart; the sheer number of bodies and mic stands on stage made eye contact impractical.

Like Watson pedagogy also demands, there was no physical set list, though the core players were so practiced in the Watson oeuvre that songs like “Tennesee Stud” could have been executed on an ideomotor level. It began with one of Doc’s most common show openers, “Mama Don’t Allow No Music,” a song that was punk in a way that was entirely independent of the movement occurring at the same time as his 1975 recording, the band taking their turns based on Bush’s improvised lyrics of things mama don’t allow. Not all of the set was comprised of tunes for which Watson was especially known, however. Jerry Douglas indulged in “Cincinnati Rag,” a blindingly fast tune in which he, Mark O’Connor and Bela Fleck specialized back before mullets were a faux pas.

Then again, the makings of a great tribute are the personal moments, and luthier Wayne Henderson’s unveiling of a guitar that his daughter Jayne had been building for Doc, unfinished until after his passing, was among the dearest.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” said Henderson, wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, in his thick Blue Ridge twang. “I ain’t never played around this many famous musicians before.” Played around, possibly not. Served as an angel of mercy when their prized Gallaghers and Martins get knocked out of commission, absolutely. But Henderson more than held his own amidst a tempest of talent.

Some tributeers made their statements individually. Jeff Hanna told of sitting around McCabe’s guitar shop in Long Beach, waiting for the next Doc Watson record to come out. “When Live on Stage came out, hoo boy,” he said. The Avett Brothers gave an impassioned a capella of “Down In the Valley to Pray.” Peter Rowan was among the first to pen a song for Watson after his passing, and his offering “Doc Watson Morning” was sung in his distinctively playful patterns, turning morning into mourning when it was suited, but offering “Your Long Journey” with a sweetness that resisted its inherent lamentations.

Outside of the tribute circuit, the Hillside Album Hour threw a curveball in its fifth year. Proper studio albums had been de rigueur in the initial years, but a far lengthier time slot suggested that this year’s selection wouldn’t be bound by the constraints of a 60-minute LP. Ex-Screaming Cheetah Wheelie frontman Mike Farris joined the Waybacks from the outset in recreating Bob Dylan & the Band’s Before the Flood, a double-album considered one of the finest live releases ever, in front of a crowd stacked three high and blanketing the hill like a cluster of ants, only more territorial.

Farris’s voice, huge and soulful, was almost at odds with the froggy croak that Bob Dylan emitted on the original record, and his renderings of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and set closer “Blowin’ in the Wind” were instilled with a little more church than Dylan might have intended. Then there was Warren Hood, whose virtuosic violin playing had the unenviable task of replicating Garth Hudson’s stratified synth arrangements. Among two hours of glorious execution from all angles, he especially rose to the occasion, particularly on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, the one song on Before the Flood that’s most often considered the definitive version. The version by Waybacks et al just so happened to include a bridge of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” a bit of an anachronism given that it had yet to exist when Before the Flood was released, but a fun side-trip by guests Della Mae and John Cowan nonetheless.

For a festival that’s never short on authenticity, there is cachet by association for those seeking it. Delta Rae is often regarded as a contrivance, somewhat of a lightweight country bricolage made from leftover parts of the Avett Brothers, Arcade Fire and the Carter Family that succeeds by playing up to the size of the room they ultimately want to play, but these ideas ignore the actual result. A Delta Rae show is pure entertainment, jubilant and as transmittable as a wild fire. Their set-ender “Dance In the Graveyards” was ultimately a first at MerleFest; a rapturous affair that ended with the band banging on metal cans and effectively trashing their stage in the process of casting off decorum and embracing attitudes the festival rarely has the chance to experience. In a festival of authenticity, it’s just one kind among many, the “plus” in Doc’s traditional-plus refrain.