We have Merles much on our mind these days. Next week is our annual preview show featuring artists playing Merlefest (and boy you don’t want to miss it). And this week, with Jim back for his first show since the passing of Merle Haggard, he opened and closed the show with Merle Moments. His kick-off song was a deep country tribute to the Hag he co-wrote with Kostas. His closing Nashville Jam was that famous working man tribute that reminded us what gamers and strivers and workers these musicians are. You don’t get as good as this and build career without toil and sacrifice, and while our artists were all over the newbie-to-veteran spectrum, they all have their heads down and undiminished perseverance and ambitions.
Opener Walter Trout has been working longest, from his days with Canned Heat and John Mayall through his 25-year solo career and then, unexpectedly, through a grueling rehabilitation from liver failure. When he says glad to be here, he means it. He launched with a standard 12-bar shuffle, bringing tons of energy and volume and passion to the hall. He did the resilient title track from the new Battle Scars album, which had a sort of Zeppelin drone rock feel. His sheer virtuosity on guitar was evident throughout, but it was really tight on his closing B.B. King tribute “Say Goodbye To The Blues.” He creates fresh-feeling runs with dashes of chromatic magic and he used the volume knob and big string bends to create mystical sounds and mood. So cool that MCR could give all of us a chance to hear one of the unsung veterans of blues rock.
Andy Ferrell grew up an hour from where they put on Merlefest, enamored with Doc Watson and the regional sound. I told him in our interview that while he may not have gotten the call yet, his set convinced me that he will inevitably kill it on the Hillside Stage at the Merle before long. He’s taken the heritage and enlivened it with a deliberate and emotional singing style and really fine songs. Opener “Last Dime Blues” had a happy country lilt. “Another New Year’s Eve” had a gentle sway over fingerstyle intricacy, while the song sketched the melancholy versus celebratory paradox of Dec. 31 with glimpses of a small town preparing for a party. Ferrell fronted a trio with acoustic bass played by one Smith (Zach) and fiddling/singing from another (Laura). Andy and the little band touched many moods and feelings in five songs, foretelling a really promising career in the acoustic mainstream of Americana.
Luke Bell has a few more years and miles on him than Ferrell, and his journey has put him squarely in the country/western camp, although he also showed a lot of range in 25 minutes. Kicker “Sometimes” was pure honky tonk with Marty Robbins overtones and the first of many impressive pedal steel parts by Leo Grassl. There were train beats and Johnny Cash style narrative ballads. “The Bullfighter” was rather Haggard-esque, with a story that sounded like it came from the typewriter of Ernest Hemingway. And the prettiest was “Where Ya Been?” with a floating quality and lovely arpeggios from the lead guitar. Who’s gonna fill Merle’s shoes? Nobody really, but with Luke Bells around, country music lives on.
We heart Mountain Heart, but we felt like spouses waiting for their loved one to come out on one of those makeover shows. New lineup. New songs. And I’m happy and unsurprised to report that our ardor has been only enhanced. They opened with their upcoming re-boot album title track “Blue Skies” and it rolled on a slinky syncopated groove. Newest member Molly Cherryholmes asserted herself (no surprise) with hard, clear draws on her fiddle. Lordy she can sing and play. Oh and Josh Shilling started the song on guitar and moved over to piano for a solo. That’s a versatile ballplayer. But wait, it gets versatiler. Aaron Ramsey composed and led the amazing minor keyed instrumental “The Bad Grounds” on mandolin, while later in the set he took over the upright bass for “Miss Me When I’m Gone,” and he played a smoking, jazz-smart bass solo. I’ve seen the largest and smallest instrument in bluegrass played against each other in shows, but never one musician showing mastery on both in one show. Incredible.
As if I’d not already had enough fun, the final two songs of the night were just awe inspiring. Mountain Heart covered Steely Dan’s “Reeling In The Years” in all acoustic, polyphonic style. The group harmonies would leave auto-tune software replying “nothing to correct” and Molly took the lead with a lustrous low range. Young guitar phenom Seth Taylor, who’d played his own blazing solos earlier, matched the famous opening guitar part perfectly on flattop. Then somehow Molly’s fiddle solo made a musical pun on the whole thing by evoking an Irish reel. But just when I thought that was our climax, the group jam on “Working Man Blues” was just a triumph. One of the best jams any of us could recall, in fact. Every sung verse by the various artists sounded record worthy. We had a half dozen or more searing soloists, just playing the blues.
You have to work hard to make stuff like this sound so easy.