lthough primarily thought of as a "roots music" festival, the artists at MerleFest can and do come from a variety of genres and locales. On the first full day of this year's festival, that point was underscored with performances from not just bluegrass and string bands, but also rock 'n' roll, soul and international acts playing here for the first time.
Austin blues/folk singer Seth Walker opened the day at the Hillside stage with a charming, amiable solo acoustic set drawn from his three albums. Highlights included "Grab Ahold," a soul-inflected blues cowritten with Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers that appears on Walker's latest album, "Sky Still Blue," and the set-closing plea that there be "More Days Like This," which Walker personalized to the MerleFest setting nicely.
Another MerleFest rookie, Foghorn String Band, kicked off the day at the Traditional tent. From Portland, Ore., the group is a quintessential string band focusing on lost and nearly forgotten tunes played with energy and enthusiasm.
The SC Broadcasters have become a MerleFest favorite in just a few short years of appearances. This year's performance was a little different, revolving around the Lowe Vintage Radio Show that the band plays several days a week in their hometown of Mt. Airy, N.C.. A 15-minute program sponsored by a local instrument shop where guitarist David Sheppard works, it is one of if not the only live radio show of its kind in the country.
For this performance, the SC Broadcasters brought along their announcer from the radio show and recreated the entire program in an extended hour format. With the announcer and even including the advertising spots for the Lowe Vintage Instruments sponsor, one could easily close their eyes and imagine listening to it on the radio.
What you'd hear, eyes open or closed, is one of the best old time acts in the current roots music scene. The SC Broadcasters are primitive bluegrass, old time and gospel music rolled into one tightly knit trio around a classic single microphone, writing new songs in the old style and finding lost classics to bring back to life.
The bluegrass scene was particularly well represented on Friday, with Lou Reid and Carolina, Kenny and Amanda Smith and Indiana's Blue Mafia all turning in spirited sets of solid, traditional no-frills bluegrass.
On the opposite end of the sonic spectrum came rousing sets from a couple of roots-based, but more rock 'n' roll oriented acts, festival rookies The Whiskey Gentry and MerleFest favorites Scythian.
Atlanta's Whiskey Gentry may have been first-timers, but the band's front woman, Lauren Staley, had been there before, as a finalist in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest a few years prior. With the full band, Staley morphed from songwriter to sassy, rowdy roots-rock rabble-rouser. With an eight-piece band along for the ride, the band ripped through a raucous set of roadhouse country and rock.
Scythian is an American band that plays Irish and European-influenced rock that's long on energy and dancing. For their first set of the weekend on the Watson Stage, they brought along an Irish band that plays American music, We Banjo 3, for a huge jam session that had the afternoon crowd on their feet.
That energetic set was only a precursor to the followup, a masterful performance from vocalist Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Review. Farris' only previous MerleFest appearance was singing in the Hillside Album Hour band a few years back; this time around, he brought his own group complete with horns, backup singers and proceeded to bring the house down.
Opening the set with a passionate cover of the late Prince's classic "Purple Rain" featuring The Waybacks' James Nash on guitar, Farris then took the band into flat-out soul patrol territory with a sound that echoed James Brown, Wilson Pickett and more. At times exhorting the crowd like a gospel preacher, at other points egging the band to greater and greater heights, Farris was completely in his element.
The band's set drew heavily from the Grammy-winning album "Shine For All the People," but they also dipped into the catalogs of Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and a gospel medley that mashed up church hymns and the Rev. Gary Davis sanctified blues.
Jerry Douglas had the task of following Farris on the Watson stage, and he wisely chose to dial things back to earth. Douglas has the distinction of playing all 29 editions of MerleFest, and his current band allows him to do as he wants, rendering genres and labels meaningless. As a Dobro player, he can cross styles at will in a band that includes sax and trumpet as well as the usual guitar/bass/drums. He's free to experiment and stretch.
At one point, Douglas paused briefly between numbers and commented "We're just gonna keep throwing," referring apparently to the strikes he and the band were zinging off the stage. One particular highlight came as he introduced what he referred to as a "bluegrass song" that turned out to be a deep cut from jazz fusion act Weather Report.
Headliners for the night Old Crow Medicine Show have a career intricately involved with MerleFest, having been discovered as buskers by Doc Watson himself. The first time they played the festival, it was in the Traditional tent; they've come a long way since then.
Running headlong through a set that drew from their entire catalog, the band showcased a sound that's not so much bluegrass or old-time as it is American-Appalachian rock 'n' roll. "Wagon Wheel" may be this generation's "Free Bird," but there's still no denying the power of a throng of fans singing along to it at the end of a long day of good music.