MerleFest 2010 in review

by Ryan Snyder

It’s entirely forgivable if one should end up listening to Doc Watson’s yearly Spirit of Sunday morning performance at MerleFest on WNCW’s live radio broadcast, even if you’re holding a weekend pass and camped right down the street. To be frank, it’s tough to get rolling that early after putting yourself through the entire Midnight Jam the night before, but there’s also something that just feels right about hearing something so guileless and pure on low bandwidth FM. You need not claim any religion in particular to appreciate hearing an institution of American music like Watson avow the origins of his beliefs so openly and honestly. That he does it to the tune of the finest bluegrass and Appalachian gospel sounds the ears could ever hear — the incomparable Nashville Bluegrass Band backed him this time around — is just a bonus.

Not that one should make it a point to sit at their campsite and listen to the MerleFest goings-on from afar while working up a first class wristband tan; a lot of it needed to be witnessed firsthand to be fully appreciated. Seeing Sam Bush up close and personal, for instance, is one of those times. Watching his finger work on the mandolin is still like witnessing bluegrass innovation right before your eyes, but his guest spot along with the Waybacks’ fiddle player Warren Hood during Friday night headliner Little Feat’s set was one of those moments that stay with you Monday morning. Feat reached straight into their classic live album Waiting For Columbus for the engrossing smuggler’s singalong “Willin’” with a “Don’t Bogart that Joint” bridge heightening the evening’s festive mood.

One never really gets accustomed to drug references onstage at such a traditionally valued event like MerleFest, no matter how much fun they are, but Peter Rowan’s efforts to dance around the imprudent chorus to the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Lonesome LA Cowboy” during his Saturday afternoon set showed he at least made a conscious effort to address them. “I’ve been smokin’… tokin’… tryin’ to write a song,” he sang before he capitulated to the standard delivery of “I’ve been smokin’ dope, snortin’ coke, tryin’ to write a song.” Then again, he’s Peter Rowan and he’s a legend, so he gets a pass.

It was impossible to want for things to do and hear on Saturday with all 14 stages buzzing with activity at all times, but there was a general feeling that everything going on up until the late afternoon was a mere placeholder for the Waybacks anticipated Hillside Album Hour. A huge crowd gathered at the main stage to see one of the greatest innovators in guitar flatpicking of all time in Tony Rice, but it was as if the collective unconscious drove the herd toward the Hillside Stage immediately at its conclusion to plant themselves by the hundreds to see which classic album would be covered this time around.

Easily doubling the largest audience outside the main stage, the Waybacks’ bassist Joe Kyle dropped the opening bass line to “Come Together” as the Beatles’ Abbey Road would join the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Led Zeppelin II in the event’s lexicon. Of course, guests abounded, and each lent something special to the set. The Duhk’s Sarah Dugar was enthralling on “Oh! Darling” and Jim Lauderdale was an enlightened choice for “Octopus’s Garden.” The set also featured guitarist Jens Kruger, bassist Byron House and Shannon Whitworth on a stirring version of “Here Comes the Sun,” but it was Elvis Costello’s entrance for “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” that was the most startling. The rock legend bolted onstage and cranked out the album’s shortest, fastest bit with extreme efficiency as the band did it’s best to keep up.

Costello was but one of two gargantuan, but somewhat unconventional names on the Saturday night headliner roster, though both he and Steve Martin were perfectly suited to the role. Martin was backed by Asheville bluegrass troupe the Steep Canyon Rangers for his banjo tour and while his first go-round with the band was a little on the rigid side, it was great to see Martin lightening up to his droll and witty self. His between-song banter was worth the ticket alone: “So I walked away with the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album this year [applause]. Then they called me up and told me I won it, so that was really unnecessary.” But his chemistry with the Rangers was transcendent.

While it’s certainly arguable that the finest band all weekend belonged to that of Elvis Costello, it’s also possible that it was the biggest waste of talent to happen all weekend long. It seemed that only Lauderdale was used to the fullest effect in his customary role as the outstanding sideman, but to see Dobro master Jerry Douglas and possibly the greatest Monroe prot’g’ of all in mandolinist Mike Compton utterly reigned in seemed opposed to the festival spirit.

Other highlights:

• The Walker Center was once again at capacity for the Midnight Jam, but Zac Brown may have lowered the bar as the event’s alltime most boring, uncharismatic host.

• The highest single-day attendance came on Sunday, as the crowd’s youthful facelift seemed to assure that teeny-bopper status for the Avett Brothers is unavoidable.

• Jens and Uwe Kruger relayed some of the best stories of the weekend and how they stole Doc Watson’s “Black Mountain Rag” thunder years ago topped them all.

• In one of the festival’s all-time awkward moments, two Berklee College academics presented Doc with an honorary doctorate only to have Watson essentially tell them that he’ll put it with the rest of them.

• Congratulations to David Butler of Greensboro for winning the MerleFest 2011 VIP package. I’m going to be crashing on the floor of your suite if you don’t mind.

Jim lauderdale accompanies elvis Costello on his classic “Brilliant Mistake.” (photos by ryan snyder)

the Avett Brothers throw down for the weekend’s final performance.