MerleFest 25: Who’s gonna fill their seats?

by Ryan Snyder

Chris Thile put his hand to his brow and gazed out past the reserved seats at the MerleFest Watson Stage to acknowledge the thousands out of view who came out for the Punch Brothers’ Saturday night pre-headlining set. “I know you’re out there, so let me hear you,” he said, as the roar of many was only faintly perceived from near the front of the stage. From where he stood, it must’ve looked like an inauspicious turnout for one of the bravest, most progressive sets to ever to go down on the festival’s main stage. About every third seat sat empty for the first 15 or so rows; beyond that, the ratio gradually got even less favorable until the buzzy general seating way in the back. When bill-toppers the Tedeschi Trucks Band took the stage at 10 p.m., the number of fans disguised as empty seats was even more staggering, but not altogether surprising.

As much as both of the evening acts Saturday were giving, they should have been getting back two-fold, but that wasn’t the case because of a policy in desperate need of review. While a large segment of those holding the tickets take the “reserved” insinuation a little too literally — to the point that regular pulse checks might need to be an included amenity — earmarked seats in the first 50 rows are a double-edged sword. On the positive, they alleviate the typical older MerleFest attendee’s maddening tendency to hunker down in one single spot for an entire day (see: the ocean of camp chairs at the Hillside stage that are frequently unoccupied until the Waybacks’ Album Hour) with a spot that comes with an immutable claim.

On the other hand, the same people who buy them seem overwhelmingly less receptive to the less traditionally leaning acts that inhabit the later slots and thus are more likely to split after Doc’s late-afternoon set. The problem arrives when the seating Gestapo forbids anyone without the requisite four-day reserved seating wristband from inhabiting these seats, and that includes the single-day ticket holders who might’ve come specifically for, say, the Punch Brothers, and those with patron passes that allow backstage access alike.

From a personal perspective, I was among the latter, squatting an abandoned seat 25 rows back to the farthest stage right when a security guard stated I didn’t have the correct wristband for that seat. Not that its owner was anywhere in sight making an effort to claim it, however; but if he made an exception for me, the guard insisted, he’d have to make an exception for the other 2,000 people in the back. Ironic, because most of them could have been accommodated during the Tedeschi Trucks Bands’ set. From the artist’s perspective, that attitude relegates the most enthusiastic fans out of range for fostering any sort of personal connection. Instead, most of those who sat immediately before the scintillating performances by the Punches and TTB were sedate and scattered, with numbers waning by the minute.

As unique as the MerleFest experience consistently is, this shouldn’t be the case. One would be hard-pressed to find another music festival where some of its most riveting moments, the ones that separate it from its peers that lack the same rich history, are taken for granted by its core supporters. There’s little doubt that Saturday night was the first time that a Radiohead song had ever been interpreted from the Watson Stage, let alone in such an imaginative, accessible way. So why was Chris Thile stretching his eyes to see who was feeling it the most? It’s not as if Tedeschi Trucks were programmed against steep competition; the Saturday Night Dance kicked off half an hour afterwards and the limited-capacity Midnight Jam started a full hour later. So why did the first 50 rows have to look like a Saturday afternoon matinee screening of Tower Heist? Simple: Denying access to hundreds of open, unused seats is illogical policy to the point of insanity, and for the good of fans and performers alike, it needs to be given serious reevaluation.