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Published: 2003/05/28
by Paul Kerr

And Then There’s Merle…4 Days, 280 Shows at the Merle Watson Festival

photo by Gordon Bruns

Editor’s note: This review came in a bit too late for our show reviews section and frankly an event such as MerleFest warrants a feature review.

4/24/03 – 4/27/03
Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, NC

There's festivals, my friends, and then there's Festivals. MerleFest is a
Festival with a capital F. Fourteen stages. Four days. Fourteen hours a day.
Started in 1988 as an homage to bluegrass legend Doc Watson's son Merle, who
passed away in 1985, MerleFest is the premiere bluegrass and Americana
festival in the country. Artists and fans from all over the world gather to
pay tribute to Merle and kick off the festival season.

Any review of a festival will obviously be geared towards what the writer
actually witnessed. This is a natural process, but with a festival like
MerleFest, grasping the full scope of the event is near impossible without a
team of reporters. Therefore, please accept this as a combination
review/diary of one person's experience. With 14 stages running
simultaneously, nobody can hope to see more than a small fraction of the
wonderful music being presented. This year's MerleFest featured 280 scheduled
shows! (Yup, I counted.) Dances, workshops, kids' shows and more all weave
together to create a family-friendly atmosphere of musical celebration.

Things got rolling on Thursday afternoon with Doc Watson himself taking the
stage, lighting up the western Carolina mountains with his inimitable guitar
stylings. Legendary crooner Ralph Stanley followed soon after, with acts
including Pete Wernick and David Holt filling in on the side stage between
sets. As dark descended on the festival's first night, Bela Fleck and his
former banjo teacher Tony Trischka unleashed their five-string fury on the
audience. A stirring rendition of Dave Brubeck's jazz classic "Take 5" led
into a medley of Beatles tunes, including "All You Need is Love," "Mother
Nature's Son," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Drive My Car," and finally a
version of "Let it Be" that sped up and up until bursting into a bluegrass
frenzy. Their technical wizardry had mouths agape during a version of "Clinch
Mountain Backstep." Tony came up behind Bela and stretched his arms around so
they were both playing Bela's banjo at the same time, trading off left- and
right-handed parts at blazing speed. If aliens really do live among us, Bela
Fleck is undoubtedly one of them.

Donna the Buffalo received the honor of headlining the main stage on
Thursday, their first of 4 sets over the weekend. Their thick grooves and
heartfelt affirmations are well encapsulated in the lyrics to "Positive
Friction": "There is a certain vibe, circulating in the air / Cast from all
the energy that emanates from everywhere / Ah, such a lovely truth, beginning
to unfold / It's our brothers and sisters, all coming in from the cold." They
stampeded their way through a ferocious set which also included "These Are
Better Days," "Living in Babylon," and "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" by Bob
Dylan. "Conscious Evolution," which included a huge jam into Jimi Hendrix's
"Third Stone from the Sun," brought the first night of MerleFest 2003 to a
close. The audience made their way towards the campsites with the lyrics
still fresh in their mind: "Conscious evolution, it's what turns me on /
There's got to be a difference between right & wrong / All down through the
ages struggling with the same thing / With a vision bold as love, won't you
help me sing."

Every festival is good for the local economy in terms of hotels, gas and
food, but MerleFest strives to be a neighborhood event in a much deeper way.
All of the vendors selling food and crafts are local youth, civic and church
groups. You can get pizza from the Boy Scouts, sodas from the Volunteer
Firemen or souvenirs from the Baptist Church. These groups raise a large
amount of their annual funds from MerleFest, bringing an extra sense of
community to an already friendly scene. The economic shot in the arm for the
college and the city is estimated at $15 million. Despite having over 75,000
people in attendance throughout the weekend, the infrastructure held firm,
with virtually no lines for food or bathrooms, and plenty of space around the
stages.

Friday kicked off with the first of three weekend sets by Psychograss, an
all-star bluegrass band which includes Tony Trischka, Mike Marshall, Darol
Anger, David Grier and Todd Phillips. This is high-speed improvisation,
coloring the textures of the tunes as the music swirls around them. Peter
Rowan's Texas Trio featuring Tony Rice was up next, featuring Peter's
trademark yodeling on "Land of the Navajo" and other classics. Now here's the
part where you can play along at home. To give you an example of how hard it
is to choose what to see, here's a sampling of what was going on at 1:30
Friday afternoon. Along with Psychograss on the Americana stage and Peter
Rowan on the Watson stage, you could catch Vassar Clements at the Creekside
stage, Norman Blake in the Pit, Tim O'Brien at the Austin stage, Bryan Sutton
on the Hillside, go square dancing, enter the guitar contest, or choose from
at least three other acts, all at the same time. You'd need some NASA
software and a cost-benefit analysis to figure out where to go.

Such decisions can drive a man insane, so I chose to simply close my eyes and
drift with the wind, which is how I ended up at the main stage for a
performance by country singer Guy Clark. His clever lyrics and mellow sounds
were at their best on "Out in the Parking Lot," an ode to tailgating. "You
can hear the band a-playin' right through the wall / Ain't no cover charge,
there ain't no last call / Out in the parking lot / Now there's a couple of
cowpokes puttin' up their dukes / Wasn't much to it after both of 'em puked /
Out in the parking lot." His set was followed by Vassar's Jam, the biggest
all-star jam of the weekend in celebration of Vassar Clements' 75th birthday.
Musicians picking along included Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter
Rowan, Tony Rice, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton. They tore through John
Hartford's "Steam Powered Aereo Plane," which Vassar played on the original
version of, Norman Blake's "Ginseng Sullivan," which featured Bela on some
rare backup vocals, and Vassar's own "Lonesome Fiddle Blues." The crowd sang
Vassar an impromptu heartfelt "Happy Birthday" before he led the band into
"Orange Blossom Special," telling them to "play everything you know on this
one."

Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas led his band through a blistering set on the main
stage, followed by alternative country guitarist Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Donna
the Buffalo was joined in the Dance Tent by Pete Wernick on banjo and young
fiddle sensation Casey Driessen for a tight set which included "Foggy
Mountain Breakdown." The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band welcomed Doc Watson and
Vassar Clements to the main stage, followed by the Rowan Brothers on the
Cabin stage. The headliner of the evening was the incomparable Bela Fleck &
the Flecktones. They bounced and buoyed through songs including "Next,"
"Sleeping Dogs Lie," and "Sherpa." Despite all their success, they're
determined to always fill their setlists with new songs, keeping their shows
fresh for both the audience and themselves. The video screen caught an epic
shot of Future Man gazing out at the crowd, banging away on both his
synth-axe drumitar with one hand and a traditional percussion kit with the
other. They wrapped up the set by honoring a request from the Wooten's' mom
for "The Sinister Minister" before encoring with the beautiful instrumental
"Big Country."

Saturday got rolling with another set by Donna the Buffalo, this time with
special guest Jim Lauderdale singing with them. Multi-instrumentalist Mark
Schatz led his band through a rollicking set on the Americana stage before
one of the more unusual acts of the day appeared on the main stage. One of th
e great things about festivals is the opportunity provided for musicians to
sit in with each other. MerleFest takes it a step farther, actually
scheduling strange and unusual combinations of people to play together. So it
was that Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice took to the main stage for a
set of plaintive cowboy tunes. A set by the Nashville Bluegrass Band
followed, and then it was over to the Austin stage to see Doc Watson picking
some blues. This set featured 5 musicians, all of them playing guitar,
including Merle's son Richard (Doc's grandson). A rousing all-star jam
followed on the Hillside featuring Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas,
Bryan Sutton and Byron House. Keep in mind that after seeing all this great
music on Saturday, it was still only 4 in the afternoon!

Not all the action at MerleFest takes place on the festival grounds. There
are numerous campsites sprinkled throughout the surrounding countryside, each
one filled with people picking and jamming away. After such a busy afternoon,
we adjourned to the RV lot with some friends from Utah for some quality
guitar and mandolin time. Stumbling back down the hill after dinner, we
wandered straight into Leahy, a contemporary Celtic pop act from Canada. They
were followed by Norman Blake and his wife Nancy on the side stage, leading
into the rolling sounds of the Sam Bush Band.

Sam is a bluegrass legend, but with this band he takes a more rock-oriented
approach based on catchy tunes and loud jams. As his set wrapped up, his
penchant for stage antics arose. As the band linked arms for a group bow, Sam
smashed his head on the microphone on the way down, immediately passing out
into the arms of his band, who picked him up and carried him offstage. Tim
O'Brien & Darrell Scott's set led into the always dazzling Del McCoury Band.
"Dude, you're getting a Del!" was the gag of the night, as Del's high-pitched
vocals and his son Ronnie's fiery mandolin lit up the mountain sky. The Cajun
gypsy swing of the Red Stick Ramblers then led into the burning bluegrass of
Saturday's headliners Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder.

Sunday morning came around with its usual mixed feelings. On the one hand,
excitement for another day of great music, on the other the knowledge that
the real world awaits not far behind. Before it could get us though, it was
time for one more morning set by Donna the Buffalo, followed by Norman Blake,
another performance by Mark Schatz, and then an amazing mandolin duo set by
Sam Bush & Mike Marshall. MerleFest is so well organized that this set
actually started 10 minutes early. How often does that happen at a festival?
Sam & Mike made their mandolins wail and cry like only these two masters can.
A reunion of the seminal '80s band Hot Rize was up next on the main stage,
featuring original members Tim O'Brien and Pete Wernick. Emmylou Harris
followed with the final headlining act of MerleFest 2003.

Doc Watson appeared at the end to wrap things up the way he always does, with
a tribute to his son Merle, without whom none of the amazing music and
memories of the weekend would have been possible. The 16th annual MerleFest
had come to an end, but preparations are already underway for next year's
celebration. Keep an eye on www.merlefest.org and sign the email list to keep
up with all the necessary information. These are 280 shows you don't want to
miss!

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