Sunday, April 26, 2009

Merlefest 2009: First take

Folks, the 2009 Merle Eddy Watson Memorial Music Festival was hot. And the temps were pretty high, too -- around 90 Saturday. A few highlights of the stuff we saw.

Friday, afternoon: The Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. This contest helped launch the careers of the first winner in the bluegrass category, Gillian Welch (1993), and Tift Merritt (2001), who was one of the judges this year (seen pictured with, among others, Jim Lauderdale and Leonard Podolak of the Duhks).

We disagreed with the judges in all four categories. And one entrant who was a finalist in two categories and finished first in one should have won for best country song instead of best gospel song, but whatever.

Tift Merritt played the Cabin Stage Thursday evening, and it was her first appearance at Merlefest since she won the Austin contest (and performed on the Cabin Stage) eight years ago.

Friday night, Watson Stage: The Del McCoury Band. For my money, there's no one better playing straight-ahead bluegrass. The band incorporates some contemporary influences at times (playing a great arrangement of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," for instance -- which they've also recorded), but staying true to tradition without sounding musty or hokey. Forgot to take photos, unfortunately.

Friday night, Watson Stage: The Waybacks. Still our favorite Americana band. We wound up seeing them three times over about a 20-hour period.

Saturday morning, the Lounge: Doug MacLeod. You gotta see this guy play, especially if your only contact with him was his tenure several years back as the host of "Nothin' But the Blues" on KLON/KJZZ in Long Beach.

He's a terrific singer, songwriter, guitarist, story teller, and a charming and funny fellow. Plays traditional blues the way they're supposed to be done. He's based in SoCal, so if he's in your neighborhood, please go see him live. And if you don't live there, buy his CDs. He's a treasure.

Saturday afternoon: The Waybacks, the Walker Center. Set No. 2 with the guys, all by their lonesomes, before a SRO crowd. (Apologies for the lousy photo quality.) How James Nash makes that flattop acoustic guitar sound like a Stratocaster is anyone's guess.

Saturday afternoon, the Creekside Stage: The Belleville Outfit. The find of the festival, IMO. This group of kids, now based in Austin, launched their career on the back stages of Merlefest 2007. They've become quite an item on the Americana circuit. If your tastes run to gypsy swing and celtic, with a little Patsy Cline for good measure, you'll love the Belleville Outfit.

Saturday afternoon, the Hillside Stage: The Hillside Album Hour with The Waybacks and John Cowan. Last year they played Led Zeppelin II, start to finish. This year it was Sticky Fingers, with special guest Emmylou Harris handling vocals on "Wild Horses" (sure to be popular when makes the songs available as downloads). Sam Bush joined the band on 'lectric guitar (the first time I've heard of him playing anything other than mandolin or fiddle). The place was packed, despite the 90-degree temps, and it was a blast.

Saturday night: Emmylou Harris, Watson Stage. She was in great form, though she is what she is (as she joked onstage) -- a charter member of the depressing singer/songwriters' club. After nearly 12 hours of listening to music (and at the end of the third day of the festival), we were toast and couldn't even hang around long enough for Sam Bush's set. It was probably awesome. Rats.

Besides Sam, who else would we have liked to see but didn't? Doc, who performed only Saturday and Sunday. His Saturday night Docabilly set began after the Album Hour and we had to take a break and catch up with family and friends. And we didn't attend the festival Sunday. Again, we had hit our limit.

The Greencards. The Duhks (in a set by themselves). Sierra Hull and Highway 111. Joe Thompson. The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Doc'll be in Raleigh this summer, and you wonder how much longer he'll be with us. So if you get a chance to see him, do so.