Weather be damned; The Avetts, Marcus King turn it up at a notch MerleFest
Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 28, 2023
Reviewed by Kevin Oliver
Early highlights included Montana act Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, who brought a mixture of country and bluegrass to their Hillside Stage set. Rob Ickes (of Blue Highway) and Trey Hensley kicked off the main Watson Stage schedule with a duet show that included songs from their third album together, *World Full of Blues."
The indoor Walker Center auditorium hosted several of the day's most intriguing acts. Alison Brown brought her adventurous quartet and augmented their usual wide-ranging instrumental sound with guest vocals from Brown's daughter, Hannah Sweet. Playing inside allowed Brown to include visuals on a screen above the stage, which she utilized for a vintage cartoon and then a slide show of old photos juxtaposed over Brown playing a ragtime style instrumental on what she described as a "150-year-old banjo."
Chicago's Henhouse Flowers were both a throwback and a forward looking act, playing traditional sounding bluegrass around a single microphone using the bob-and-weave technique of classic genre masters as they traded vocal and instrumental solos.
"My Little Flower," a song from their next album due in September, was an uptempo barnburner with great harmony vocals, and they closed with an a capella pseudo-gospel tune that interjected contemporary "love your neighbor" lyrics.
The most intriguing portion of the set, however, was when the band brought up their history of playing overseas shows with the U.S. State Department as part of a cultural "bluegrass ambassadors" program. The song they highlighted this portion of their repertoire with was a traditional folk song from Uzbekistan, which they sang in the native language in appropriately boisterous fashion.
The Walker Center proved a fortuitous place to be for the midafternoon sets as a threat of severe weather forced the festival to send everyone indoors and temporarily halt all of the outdoor stage sets for safety. Inside, the power to the PA system was cut to avoid potential lightning strike power surges, but the performers didn't let that stop them. Chris Jones and the Night Drivers were in the middle of their set when the electricity was cut, but they simply huddled up at the front of the Walker Center stage and proceeded to finish out in truly unplugged acoustic fashion.
Peter Rowan was up next, and he followed suit with his own band, and the audience, which had swelled to capacity due to all the shelter-seekers, was kept in quiet, rapt attention. Rowan remarked on the situation at one point, saying "We're taking it back to where it all began," he said.
Rowan is a MerleFest institution, and he hit upon several of his classic songs, but the highlights of the set were an instrumental led by his young fiddle player and a sweetly rendered take on "Drifting Too Far From Shore," with tender high harmony parts that pierced the air of the eerily quiet auditorium.
After the storm threat passed, the festival wasted no time in getting the main stages back on track. A highlight of the early evening was the set billed as "The Black Opry Revue," featuring a lineup of African-American country musicians and songwriters doing one song each with a common backing band. Mel Washington delivered a fiery performance on an original song of his, "Whiskey River," and Charles Pierce offered up a history lesson in a song about the Tulsa Massacre, which he prefaced as saying that it was "An attempt at telling the truth about what happened that day," before playing the tune in an appropriate murder ballad style.
Marcus King Band made the most of their MerleFest debut, as the Greenville, S.C. native and current Nashville resident presented a loud and proud set of throwback style rock, soul and blues. King's sound owes a debt to everyone from Rick Derringer to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, and he's both a hotshot guitarist and a formidable vocalist, both qualities on full display on this night.
Blasting into their set with a blazing electric blues number, the band settled into a soulful groove for the remainder of the set, a retro revue of rock and soul sounds driven by King's propulsive guitar leads. The set turned into a bit of a family affair, with King's wife, Riley, singing a duet on one song and his father, Marvin King, taking over his guitar on the closing tune.
The Avett Brothers closed out the night with a triumphant return to what's basically their home turf, having played the festival many times, and as Scott Avett recalled from stage during their set, attending as kids in the audience themselves. Their set was heavy on older songs in their back catalog, including a beautiful, solo "Murder In The City," and they added a fun cover of "Jump In Line" to honor the late Harry Belafonte.
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