HomeNewsInterviewsCD ReleasesCD ReviewsConcertsArtistsArchive

Nickel Creek, Nelson highlight MerleFest closing day

Wilkesboro Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 28, 2024

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

Sunday at MerleFest is a long coda to the four-day festival, with gospel sets peppered throughout the morning schedule and a limited afternoon slate of artists that's done by dinnertime. Even with the more laid back, abbreviated day, there were definite highlights.

The trend of new acts making waves continued on Sunday, as the Virginia group Palmyra kicked off the day at the Watson Stage in the morning before heading to the Dance Stage in the early afternoon. At both, the band's emotive, energetic style captivated the crowd. Palmyra uses traditional acoustic sounds as a jumping off point for confessional songwriting that brings to mind bigger names such as The Avett Brothers.

Main singer Sasha takes cues from their own life for many of the band's tunes, including one in particular that they introduced with a story about a bipolar diagnosis that took some personal adjustment on their part. On the apologetic "The Shape I'm In ," in an increasingly unhinged voice, Sasha intoned "I've never been lower, I've never been higher," until it was almost a scream, a cry for help that, thankfully, they seem to have received.

Holding down the legacy of classic country icons such as George Jones and Buck Owens, Jim Lauderdale is another of those constants at MerleFest. Sunday's set on the Cabin stage was an extended full band romp that touched on many points in his extensive back catalog. "The Game Changers," a song from his latest album of the same name that his backing band has taken on as their name, was one highlight. Lauderdale has had many songs recorded by major artists, and he dropped several into this set including the sublime, "You Don't Seem To Miss Me," a hit for Patty Loveless and George Jones.

One of the more anticipated sets of the day was Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real. Fresh off a plane flight from the west coast Stagecoach festival, Nelson delivered and then some. He can't really get away from his famous dad Willie Nelson, not that he's particularly trying. It's remarkable at times how much Lukas Nelson resembles his father, especially in his vocal timbre and mannerisms. It's like going back in time to hear Willie 40 years ago. It's that timeless and real, just classic American country rock and roll.

Promise of the Real is more than his band's name, it is a contract with the listener where Nelson delivers on his immense promise with some real, authentic American musical sounds. For this set, he added singer/songwriter Brooke Lee, who took a prominent vocal turn with Nelson on "Carolina," an apt tune for the location. Another older song, 2017's "I Hope You Find Yourself," was delivered in a soulful, rootsy take that echoed The Band's work with Bob Dylan.

Headliners Nickel Creek had been scheduled to play MerleFest in 2023, but came down sick in the days leading up to last year's festival, so having them back this year was a welcome chance for them to make their first appearance at MerleFest in almost 20 years. Pioneers of contemporary bluegrass who ended up transcending the genre before splitting into various side and solo projects, they regrouped last year for the excellent "Celebrants," which got top billing in the set list for this set.

They're still an inspiring live act, and each member took turns on lead vocals for various songs. They also dug deep into the past, with Chris Thile taking the lead on "The Lighthouse's Tale," from their self-titled album way back in 2000.

The bright, promising young act on that debut is now a group of respected, somewhat older statesmen. They are coming at the same music from vastly different perspectives and yet sound even more contemplative and appreciative of their position now.

Thile paused at one point and dedicated the song "Going Out," another new tune from the latest album, to the audience who had come out to see them and all the other acts over the past four days. A beautiful mostly instrumental track with movement and dynamic shifts throughout, it was a fitting tribute, and ending, to this edition of MerleFest.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
AboutCopyrightNewsletterOur sister publication Standard Time
Subscribe to Country Music News Country News   Subscribe to Country Music CD Reviews CD Reviews   Follow us on Twitter  Instagram  Facebook  YouTube