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MerleFest day 3: Fleck shines along with new acts

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 27, 2024

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

On a jam-packed Saturday schedule at MerleFest, many of the best moments continued to be found at the small stages and lesser known acts, showing the festival's potential for audiences to discover great new artists alongside the marquee names.

There were plenty of the latter as well, from the patriarchs of MerleFest such as Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush to current favorites Sierra Hull and Brandy Clark.

Clark had a long day, appearing at the Hillside stage at 11 a.m. and again that evening on the Cabin stage prior to the final set of the evening by the Teskey Brothers. At each of her opportunities to play, Clark showed why she's one of the best songwriters in current country music. In the early set, "Big Day in a Small Town," received the best response from the crowd, which seemed familiar with that title track from Clark's most popular album. Her turns of phrase are both classic country style wordplay yet remarkably fresh and original, as on "Love Can Go To Hell," where she sang "Like roses in a vase of whiskey / Dying for the way you used to kiss me / Heaven knows I only wish you well / Oh, but love, yeah love / Can go to hell."

The continuity of MerleFest over 36 years means that there are artists that come every year, institutions of the festival. Peter Rowan, now in his 80s, is one of those. Rowan's early set in the Traditional Stage tent showcased a wide range of his classics, from "Panama Red" (from New Riders of the Purple Sage) to "Midnight Moonlight." He's slowed down at this point to where the band is carrying much of the musical load, and he surrounds himself with great players such as bassist Mike Bub and drummer Larry Atamanuik. Rowan himself is still in great voice, however, and he sang out strong to the delight of the large, devoted crowd.

Bush is another artist who is inextricably linked to MerleFest, having played every year. He's everywhere on the days he's in attendance, from the all-star Mando Mania set to his own Sam Bush Band set on the Watson stage. At the latter, he presented a trademark mixture of newgrass, old time music and more. Tying the set list into the Watson family, Bush introduced one pair of songs as having come from the repertoire of Doc Watson himself, including a nifty instrumental, "The Pear Tree."

The sound of this impressive group of players was a culmination of all that Fleck has done to popularize modern bluegrass, hearkening back to his landmark solo album "Drive" with contemporary, driving arrangements of instrumental, monumental proportions.

It was a mostly nonstop set with the group modulating from one tune to the next feeling like an extended jam. At one point, Fleck interrupted the music to introduce their version of a classic American composition, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," saying "Today we'll call this one "Rhapsody in Bluegrass."

Once again on Saturday, the new acts stole the show at the various stages around the festival. Them Coulee Boys were a delightful mixture of rough-edged roots rock and Americana, and Adeem The Artist brought social commentary laced with humor on a pair of sets. The Silent Comedy took the genre to emotionally dramatic songwriting potential.

Speaking of potential, even the Little Pickers Stage for kids was notable, for the set from teenage bluegrass band Carolina Detour. Featuring a cast of middle and high school age players, the group put a series of contemporary and classic tunes through the filter of a six-piece lineup that included excellent instrumental turns on banjo from Malachi Bulman, guitar from Tae Childress and some powerful vocal moments from singer and fiddler Lake Carver.

Headline sets at MerleFest can include almost any kind of act; the Saturday night slot this year featured Australian band The Teskey Brothers. Their sound is more deep southern American soul, however, paying homage to the chitlin circuit soul singers, the Chicago style jump blues with a horn section and more in a set that settled into a soulful groove throughout, a mellow but danceable ending to the evening.

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