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Debuts rule on MerleFest day three

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 30, 2022

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

Saturday was a day when debut MerleFest debuts highlighted day three.

Some got a chance to showcase their talents on the Cabin Stage in front of the early, but still substantial, crowd.

The Tray Wellington Band isn't a familiar name – yet – but its namesake might ring a bell. The banjoist was the IBMA Momentum Award winner in 2019 with his previous ensemble Cane Mill Road, earning the nod as both an instrumentalist and as a member of the band. His new project, "Black Banjo," is out on May 13, and he put the band through their paces with several songs from it, including "Wasted Time," which features a duet with country singer Tim McGraw on the album version.

Wellington, like many artists who play MerleFest, has a personal connection with the festival, which he explained. As a child, he was part of Pete Wernick's Jam Camp, which always has a featured spot for campers to play as part of MerleFest and part of their camping experience.

"MerleFest is a big part of why I'm a musician," Wellington noted as he introduced another hard-driving instrumental tune. His material ranges from that traditional bluegrass tempo to more contemporary, acoustic song-based styles. It's a definitively modern bluegrass style, with more New Grass Revival and Tony Rice than Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley.

Another young band making their MerleFest debut in impressive fashion was The Arcadian Wild, a Nashville-based band. After an early outdoor set, they moved into the spacious Walker Center auditorium, where they found a receptive audience for their youthful sound. As with Wellington, the trio travels in mostly contemporary sounds, echoing predecessors such as Nickel Creek.

Singer-songwriter Darrell Scott has a long list of songs that have been hits for others, but for his Walker Center performance he chose to mostly focus on playing some favorite tunes by other writers. Moving back and forth between guitar and a grand piano, Scott took the audience to church with the Easter hymn "Were You There" and a spirited closing version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which became an audience sing-along at his request.

North Carolina Americana artist Caleb Caudle clearly enjoyed his debut, playing an opening Cabin Stage set and then a late afternoon stint on the Creekside Stage. His band covers all the instrumental bases, with Dobro, mandolin and an upright bassist supporting Caudle's expressive, twang-heavy baritone voice. It's the kind of instantly familiar material that makes one wonder where you heard it before, even if it's the first time.

The Watson Stage set from Men At Work founder Colin Hay included a couple of tunes from his '80s hitmaking days, reworked for the solo acoustic format, but still familiar enough to invoke the inevitable singalong on "Land Down Under."

Hay's post-'80s output has focused on a more stately singer-songwriter style, punctuated by a dry sense of humor that was on full display for this set as he spun story after story between songs.

It wouldn't be Saturday at MerleFest without a set from the King of MerleFest himself, Sam Bush, who brought his full band along for an eclectic ride through the staples of his back catalog, including "Telluride" and a jaunty take on John Hiatt's "Memphis In the Meantime." After seeing Bush pop up as a guest picker on several other artist sets throughout the weekend, it was time for him to take over and put his own band through their paces on some great instrumental jamming.

In her MerleFest debut, Allison Russell brought a decidedly different flavor to the closing Cabin Stage set of the evening, with an all-female band of musicians, including one who had played the festival in a previous year, electric guitarist Meghan McCormick.

Russell's music is part string band, part soul and all passion. The social justice issues that she addresses in songs such as "Poison Arrow," from her Grammy winning 2021 album "Outside Child," were a welcome addition to the conversation, and an intro to "You Are Not Alone," from 2019's "Songs of Our Native Daughters" from the super group Our Native Daughters, left no doubt as to where she stands in this post-pandemic landscape.

Old Crow Medicine Show lived up to their name by putting on a real show to cap the night; their sound hasn't changed a great deal since the departure of founding member Willie Watson, but for a number of years they have been gradually shifting into less of the string band sound they originated and into more of a high octane hillbilly rock 'n' roll outfit. The energy level of both the band and the audience was a perfect fit to close out Saturday night at MerleFest.



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