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MerleFest gets underway with Emmanuel, Little Feat

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 27, 2023

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

The 35th annual edition of MerleFest, the North Carolina roots music festival that honors the legacy of Doc and Merle Watson, started strong despite a wet, rainy Thursday afternoon. While the weather didn't improve much throughout the day, the music more than made up for it.

North Carolina native and former teenage American Idol contestant Presley Barker opened the Watson Stage and showed that he's only getting better as he gets older with a solid country set.

The Tejon Street Corner Thieves were another early highlight; the Colorado trio's street busking origins were on full display with a rowdy, enthusiastic set that leaned heavily on the whiskey and drinking tunes.

Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel brought the day's first major musical fireworks, roaming the stage and captivating the audience with only an acoustic guitar. Chet Atkins once pronounced Emmanuel a "certifiied guitar player," and he's certainly that and more. Mixing in a repertoire of blues and folk classics that served as vehicles for his freewheeling fingerstyle guitar picking, Emmanuel managed to bring new life to old standards such as "Nine Pound Hammer" as well as turning some well known Beatles hits into an entertaining medley.

Jerry Douglas stepped out on stage with his acoustic Dobro for a couple of sublime duets with Emmanuel, including a beautiful version of Emmanuel's original composition "Halfway Home." Douglas is a frequent sight on stage at MerleFest, and this was only the first of what will most likely be multiple guest spots throughout the festival in addition to his own full sets.

The peak of Emmanuel's set wasn't a flashy guitar number, however, but an arrangement of Paul Simon's "American Tune" that had the audience at its quietest, most rapt attention of the night. Following that with "Amazing Grace" showed that Emmanuel is much more than just the flashy entertaining picker, he can convey deeply resonant emotions in these more spiritual moments.

More an institution than a band at this point, the current ensemble carried the torch of the late Lowell George into MerleFest through renditions of familiar tunes such as "Willing," which featured a guest spot from - big surprise - Douglas. They added the obvious crowd pleasers such as "Dixie Chicken," which the band worked into an extended jam that saw Emmanuel return for a back-and-forth solo trading session.

Texas country singer Joshua Ray Walker made his MerleFest debut with a set of songs showcasing his off-kilter honky-tonk style. Maybe more suited to a dimly lit barroom than the Cabin Stage at MerleFest, the crowd nonetheless gave a warm reception to his steel guitar driven tunes about dumpster diving and lot lizards.

Closing out the night on the Watson Stage, the group billed as "Brothers of a Feather with Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes" did indeed pull out some staples from that band's hit back catalog, to the delight of the fans, but most of the set was devoted to a kind of mid-tempo boogie rock that the Crowes often hinted at in their career, but rarely sank completely into.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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