Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro
Saturday, April 25 and Sunday, April 26
Arriving early to the festival grounds of Wilkes County Community College Saturday morning, the day's weather promised to be dreary. The wind picked up and blew coolly as crowds hurried through the front gate and to the various stages that hosted the first sets of the day.
I headed for the Creekside Stage to catch the intriguing pair of Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. The Seattle-based duo plays refreshing traditional music with simple instrumentation and vocal phrasing similar to that of Tim O'Brien. Despite only catching half of the set, the pair's I'll Swing the Hammer with Both My Hands became my only CD purchase of the weekend.
Two yearly traditions followed at the Creekside Stage—the "Memories of Doc" set followed by "MandoMania." Memories, hosted by Doc Watson's long-time bass player T. Michael Coleman, featured an array of former Watson collaborators and friends. They told stories and shared laughs about how the Watson pair impacted their lives. Jeff Little, Wayne Henderson, David Holt, Sam Bush, the Kruger Brothers, Jack Lawrence, Peter Rowan and more joined Coleman for the 90-minute program.
Each year, Tony Williamson seeks out the best mandolin players attending MerleFest to join MandoMania. This version featured Williamson, Mike Compton, Emory Lester, Sam Bush and newcomer Andrew Marlin, of Mandolin Orange. Marlin's addition was an intriguing one, as he's considerably younger than the seasoned instrumentalists around him.But he showed no shortcomings as the five-piece worked through a number of standards while discussing the types of mandolins each played.
Sunday again kicked off with less-than-ideal weather conditions. Still, the troopers of Blu-Bop started the action at the Hillside Stage as a downpour began. The Béla Fleck and the Flecktones tribute act had a mere 30-minute slot, which I thought would equate to two songs from the jam-heavy group. But with seven members rotating in and out, they squeezed in four songs, with the stand-out "Sinister Minister" coming near the end.
Later in the afternoon, Blind Boy Paxton held court with a brief solo show to close down the Traditional Tent. The Queens multi-instrumentalist showcased his abilities on the fiddle, finger-picking guitar and clacking together the hand bones. He was as engaging as any full band.
As the four-day festival wound down with a triumphant performance by Dwight Yoakam, the number of patrons who remained despite the poor weather proved the festival's real strength. Over the years, Merlefest has built a strong relationship with its fans by ensuring that, even when you risk the inconvenience of a cold and rainy day, you will be rewarded with a considerable day of curated music. Despite such hurdles, attendance grew this year for a festival too strong to be outdone by a few rain drops.
Thanks to Dale Glenn for his assistance in recording audio throughout the weekend.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, "James is Out" and "Livin' in America"
Sam Bush, Wayne Henderson and Peter Rowan, "Memories of Doc"