‘Wonderful (MerleFest) weekend’ - journalpatriot: News
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‘Wonderful (MerleFest) weekend’

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  • Album Hour

    The Album Hour, always a favorite set at MerleFest, this year featured songs from the 1989 Tom Petty album, “Full Moon Fever.” It was presented on the Hillside Stage (near Lowe’s Hall and the Walker Center) by The Waybacks, joined by Mike Farris, Sam Bush and others.

Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2018 12:00 pm

The 31st MerleFest is being called a resounding success, with near perfect weather, crowd-pleasing music and memories sure to linger long past the closing number Sunday at Wilkes Community College.

“We’ve had just a wonderful weekend,” Festival Director Ted Hagaman said Sunday afternoon.

“With over 120 artists on 13 stages over the four days, we again feel we succeeded in providing a quality and successful event for all involved. This event could not happen without the work and dedication of our 4,000-plus volunteers and the many great safety and service agencies in northwestern North Carolina.”

Hagaman said organizers are already looking forward to MerleFest 2019.

An estimated 75,000 people participated in MerleFest 2018, which is in line with other MerleFests in recent years.

Well over half of the annual participation is paid ticket holders, but it includes artists, volunteers, vendors and staff. It also includes students admitted for free on Friday (over 3,000 last year) and students in the audience when MerleFest artists performed at about 17 Wilkes schools on Thursday.

MerleFest featured the musical talents of several young local musicians, most notably flatpicking guitar prodigy Presley Barker, 13, of Traphill.

Doc Watson’s presence felt

MerleFest continues to celebrate the life and music of Deep Gap’s Doc and Eddy Merle Watson. Doc coined the phrase “traditional plus” to describe his (and the festival’s) embrace of multiple music genres. Many artists, including Sam Bush, say they still feel Doc’s presence at the festival.

“I miss him still, and I feel him out here (at MerleFest), I really do,” said Bush in a press conference Sunday. “I’ve been fortunate to be at every MerleFest. I first saw Doc in 1965 at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival. I was really lucky to go, I was 13, and it changed my life.

“Doc led by example and was a gentle soul,” added Bush, who played eight sets on Saturday. “On stage, he’d play this beautiful solo, and then it’s your turn, and if you played one note too many, you’ve trashed up the whole song. So, it’s like, ‘Listen to Doc. Listen to what Doc did.’”

Sunday’s climax on the main Watson Stage was a tight bluegrass set from Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers, joined by comedian, actor and now banjoist Steve Martin.

“I did meet Doc here, the last year he played here” in 2012 before he died in May of that year, said Martin earlier Sunday. “I grew up listening to ‘Tennessee Stud’ and all those quintessential records he made. It was one of the sounds that I emulated as a young musician. He was very cordial backstage, and I couldn’t believe I was meeting him.”

Rangers guitarist Woody Platt said earlier Sunday that Doc Watson influenced him and his bandmates. “We’re not afraid as a bluegrass band to allow other influences come into our music,” he said. “Doc would play jazz and bluegrass, rock and roll, swing, alt-country, and all sorts of things, and because Doc did it, we feel like we can do that too.”

The final jam session Sunday saw Bush, Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Bryan Sutton, and Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers take the Watson Stage alongside the Rangers. Douglas and his band (featuring John Medeski on Hammond B-3 organ) had just deftly played a set prior to the Rangers.

“This festival brings us all together, and it’s the first road trip of the year,” noted Douglas earlier Sunday. “There’s so much talent at this festival—new bands come out all the time, bands like Town Mountain. It’s the same music, arranged in a different way. We’re pretty lucky people to be able to do this, and we don’t take any of this for granted.”

Other highlights Sunday including a morning Watson Stage set from We Banjo 3, two sets of brothers from Galway, Ireland, considered to be among the originators of “Celtgrass.”

Banjoist Alison Brown next took the main stage and was followed by an exclusive MerleFest performance featuring Paul Thorn & Band, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCrary Sisters, collectively dubbed “Mission Temple Fireworks Revival.”

Saturday a big day

Saturday evening on the Watson Stage was led off by Greensboro’s Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“So happy to be back at MerleFest!” she told the crowd. “It’s been a while, but it’s good to be here. Got started so many years ago with the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Cabin Stage. I’ll never forget it!”

Several other notable musicians who performed at WCC got their start at MerleFest—and some shared this on stage.

Later Saturday evening, Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and guitarist Tommy Emmanuel took the main stage after announcing their upcoming tour together at the day’s press conference.

“We need festivals like this, and this genre of music, to be handed down to the younger generations,” said Emmanuel earlier. “We need to always remember our roots and where we came from, the people who taught us and showed us the way.”

The Sam Bush Band, a perennial favorite at MerleFest, was next on the Watson Stage, paying tribute to Doc and Merle Watson with a spirited, moving set.

North Carolina’s Jim Lauderdale closed out the Saturday night festivities by sharing the main stage with singer-songwriter Buddy Miller and the North Mississippi Allstars. They were joined by Dominic Davis, longtime bassist for Jack White.

Highlights earlier Saturday included the packed Hillside Stage’s Reunion Jam featuring Bush, Douglas, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton and John Cowan for a set that included several songs recorded by New Grass Revival.

The Hillside then witnessed the Waybacks, Mike Farris and Cowan performing the entirety of Tom Petty’s classic album, “Full Moon Fever” during the popular “album hour” set.

Colorado’s Elephant Revival closed out the day’s Hillside lineup with a “sunset session” that marked one of the band’s final shows of 2018. In February, the band announced that it was going into indefinite hiatus following its May 20 show at Red Rocks, Colo., after 12 years.

Late Saturday night, a high-energy set from perennial Dance Stage closers Scythian worked up a packed audience into a foot-stomping frenzy.

Lauderdale and Asheville’s Town Mountain, who collaborated on “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” hosted another MerleFest tradition—the Midnight Jam—starting late Saturday night.

The great number of acts gracing the stage Saturday included brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) performing a delicate version of a song they learned as youngsters, “Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor.”

Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange drew rave reviews for its version of “Stone Wall Around Your Heart,” with Town Mountain’s Bobby Britt on fiddle and Emmanuel on guitar.

Lauderdale said later Sunday, “I like the way at MerleFest, where they keep so many of the folks who have been here for so many years, but they also have so many new young artists, and that’s so important. It’s just so very fun.”

Thursday and Friday

Country artist Jamey Johnson capped Friday’s diverse lineup with a well-received performance on the Watson Stage. Earlier in the day, Johnson cited Kris Kristofferson—the legendary singer and actor who closed the same stage a day earlier—as his favorite songwriter.

Prior to Johnson, Grammy-winning folk artists and MerleFest veterans Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn performed their last set before welcoming their second child, charming the audience with tales of family life on the road and a humorous anecdote about how they met on the (fictional) “Banjo Mingle” dating website.

Other highlights Friday on the Watson Stage included a smooth set from Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange (Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz), and a unique collaboration from Haywood County’s Balsam Range and a 14-piece version of the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.

Thursday night’s “MerleFest Moment” was Kris Kristofferson’s highly-anticipated MerleFest debut. The legendary singer was supported by Merle Haggard’s original backing band, The Strangers (joined by Merle’s son Ben Haggard). The rainy night closed with Grammy Award-winning stunners, The Mavericks, who delighted the wet-but-appreciative audience with their high-energy set from the Watson Stage. Thursday also included sets from Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Wilkesboro’s own Kruger Brothers, and funky-roots outfit Shinyribs, who performed a festival-favorite rendition of “All About the Bass.”

MerleFest is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.

North Wilkesboro-based Window World is the festival’s presenting sponsor. “Giving back is one of Window World’s core values,” said Window World Inc. Chairman and CEO Tammy Whitworth. “And what better way to embrace the community than MerleFest, the single largest fundraiser for Wilkes Community College.”

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