Submitted by Craig Havighurst on April 25, 2013 – 15:04
A friend once turned to me after a set at Merlefest and said “Ooh, I had a Merlefest Moment.” And I said, “Oh wow, you have those too?” It put a name on something that had been happening to me year after year as I attended that sprawling pop-up city of roots music. The whole thing was uplifting, but every so often during a performance the world would transform into a dream sequence. The song, the sound, the setting and the season would unify into pure state of transcendent NOW. Pupils dilated. Skin tingled. Heart rate elevated. Eyes glowed with dewy moisture. (And this from a standing start of pure sobriety I must add; Merlefest is alcohol free and not exactly Bonnaroo-esque when it comes to those other potential inebriants.)
My Merlefest Moments – experiencing artists like Leftover Salmon, early Old Crow Medicine Show, Donna The Buffalo, Doc Watson and friends plus many more – showed me where I was heading musically and honed my intuition about the difference between a fine performance and a great one. They were the biochemical basis for my addiction to the Spring festival of Americana that drew me back so many years in a row when I was younger and freer. Alas, I can’t go this year, but last night, at our Merlefest special edition mini-festival in a packed and happy house, I had a few Merlefest Moments that I’ll long remember.
With Della Mae, it’s easy. Their blend of style, feminine grace, songs and execution is in a league of its own right now. They opened with “Down The Road,” whose brisk, skipping tempo really set off Kimber Ludiker’s powerful fiddling. Jenni Lyn Gardner sang the lead on “Pine Tree,” a song I adore by the great Sarah Siskind. Its melody is folk perfection – enough to move you on its own. But on top of that, the expert push/pull of Shelby Means’s bass and Gardner’s mandolin created a groove deep enough in which to park an RV. “Empire” made for driving, minor key bluegrass magic with an especially commanding vocal from tone-setting singer Celia Woodsmith. And they wrapped with “Turtle Dove,” the song that first made me a Della Mae fan boy. I might have had multiple Merle Moments during the set, but now we’re getting a little too personal.
You want an easy-going, front-porch worthy, North Carolina-pure rendition of a country song? Call Jim Avett. A story-tellin’ song machine he is. With spare accompaniment by electric guitarist Jay Rutherford, Avett sang a little gospel (the force is strong with this one) and gave up self-written homespun advice in waltz time with “We All Have To Walk Our Own Road.” And you know who walks his own road? Pokey LaFarge. Dear god, man. He was good when he first came by a few years ago. Then better the next time. Now he’s refined his approach like a fine sharp blade and surrounded himself with musicians who complete him.
Pokey’s band was nothing short of astonishing last night, so let us praise great instrumentalists. Lead guitarist Adam Hoskins took brilliant solos on his archtops, with fingers and with slide, lending Eddie Lang-like precision and inventiveness to the proceedings. Ryan Koenig elevated the harmonica from its usual afterthought status to rarified heights of soul and bluesy wonder. TJ Muller played some smoking muted trumpet that carried us back to the heyday of Pops Armstrong. But I must give the side-musician of the night laurel to Chloe Feoranzo. I am biased toward the clarinet, one of my favorite sounds on earth and an instrument that’s too rarely deployed in our roots music, despite the example set by Sydney Bechet and Benny Goodman. Chloe not only played with technical precision and improvisational flair, she nailed the phrasing and swing it takes to animate Pokey’s classical jazz. When the band traded fours on their blazing encore I was in awe. That could have burned up any club in any capitol city in 1938 — or now. Truly astonishing.
The Waybacks followed that tough act to follow, and they had a couple of gear hiccups, but I could actually feel and see the boys focus on their vibe and their music, pushing any frazzle aside to enjoy their time on stage. We sure did. Opener “Bright Place” continued the swing theme from the previous set, but with more of a Western feel. James Nash got to cooking on both acoustic and electric guitars, while fiddler Warren Hood warmed up for what would prove a demanding, virtuosic set. Mr. Hood took the lead vocal on sweet, Southern and slow “Savannah.” Then Nash donned a mandolin for what’s considered a guitar-centric tune, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The band lent it a New Grass Revival kind of groove, with the melodic theme more in Hood’s hands. Great work from the rhythm section here of drummer Chuck Hamilton and bass player Joe Kyle Jr. elevated this one over the Standing Ovation mark. My personal standing O was for their set-closer “Black Cat,” with its devilishly difficult and intricate fiddle/guitar interplay. It was gypsy jazz meets baroque classical and it was fabulous.
Another feature of Merlefest is how mentorship just hangs in the air; young artists are vividly attuned to the lessons of the masters. And we structured this show to draw that out, with the legendary Peter Rowan closing the night. In a seersucker suit he took the stage alone with a guitar to perform a new tribute-in-song to our great departed hero Doc Watson. Then he brought on a crack band of Nashville pickers who surrounded him with harmony and drive in classic bluegrass quintet form. Kyle Tuttle drove the banjo (especially invigorating on “Keeping It Between The Lines”) and Chris Henry, the maven man of bluegrass on Lower Broadway these days, just nailed it with his mandolin and with his voice. It’s so cool to see Rowan drawing on our local and youthful talent pool. Peter Rowan’s own voice is the pinnacle of the music – plaintive and searching, tender but edgy. He’s got the timing and the touch. And the songs. It all climaxed in an encore that was speedy rolling thunder bluegrass magic – something about the “crack of the whip.” Bedlam ensued.
The Loveless Jam just HAD to be “Walls of Time,” the amazing song Rowan co-wrote with Bill Monroe. Jim Lauderdale and the assembled took it at a stately pace, allowing the singers to really caress their verses and the choruses to swell. We rolled right on past 10 pm for one of our longest shows ever. But the place was still full at the end and hey, it made for more Merlefest Moments. Hope you had a few.