aturday's MerleFest schedule has hinged around The Waybacks' "Hillside Album Hour" since its accidental inception a few years back; this year's candidate for the album to be played in full with special guests from throughout the lineup was a closely guarded secret right up until the first notes of the set.
Before the Album Hour, however, there were plenty of other acts to see. The Hillside stage got started early with a stirring set from the Celtic rockers Scythian imploring the mostly seated audience to get up and do "The Irish bounce"; they got their start at MerleFest on the Welcome stage outside the gates and have become perennial festival favorites.
Red June was another MerleFest first-time performer that impressed with sets on both the Americana stage and the Traditional tent, where they showcased their three-part vocal harmonies by stepping in front of the microphones for an unamplified yet still electrifying a capella tune.
Most impressive of the early acts on Saturday was the Snyder Family Band, from Lexington N.C., who came across like a young Nickel Creek. Returning for their third consecutive MerleFest, they showed impeccable musicianship not just for their young age, but for any age. Singer and champion fiddle player Samantha Snyder is 13, her brother Zeb is 16, and their dad supports on upright bass. It's not just their musicianship that's impressive, either - Samantha is already writing some excellent original material.
Assembly of Dust, featuring former members of the jam-rock band Strangefolk, got the main stage going in the early afternoon with a relaxed set of their own, perfect music for the lunchtime crowd at the Watson stage.
The Hillside stage was where the late afternoon action was. Jim Lauderdale hit the stage with his own band for a full set of classic-sounding country music. Lauderdale played several of his co-writes with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, including Patchwork River and pulled out a rarity in Always on the Outside, written in the 1990's with Nick Lowe. In one of those moments that happen at MerleFest with regularity, Tara Nevins and Jim Miller from Donna the Buffalo happened to be nearby when a fan requested Lauderdale's You Don't Seem to Miss Me, and he brought them out to sing with him.
The moment the crowd packing the Hillside stage all afternoon had been waiting for, the Hillside Album Hour, was next. The Waybacks started this accidentally five years ago when they played the Led Zeppelin II album on a lark; the response was so positive they came back the next few years and covered albums from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers. This year's entry ended up being Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" with guests including Sam Bush, John Cowan, Sarah Dugas, Christian Dugas, Kym Warner, Susan Tedeschi and Lauderdale contributing to the set, to the delight of the crowd.
After the Album Hour set, the focus shifted to the Watson and Cabin stages, with traditional bluegrass from the Gibson Brothers, the acoustic folk and rock of The Greencards, another set from Snyder Family Band and a touching group hug all-star set with Doc Watson himself at the center of the stage, surrounded by pickers and singers.
The two main acts on Saturday night were the Punch Brothers and the Tedeschi/Trucks band; Chris Thile and company have toured the Punch Brothers for six years, but this was the supergroup's first MerleFest, and they made the most of it. The band's set wasn't overly heavy on the acoustic jamming they're known for, relying instead on the varying genre-splitting styles they're capable of, from bluegrass to Middle Eastern tones and back.
Tedeschi and husband Derek Trucks were also first timers at MerleFest, and they brought a really big band to help them out - counting horns and percussion there were 12 musicians on stage for the start of the set, which ranged from scorching blues featuring the slide guitar of Trucks and Tedeschi's powerful vocals to some soul-style tunes that drew on the rest of the band's talents.
For those who weren't blues fans, the other option was the dance tent, where Scythian started the day as they had begun, playing foot-stomping instrumentals and up-tempo original, Celtic-flavored rock for a packed dance floor of jumping, clapping festival goers who were not ready to sit down yet.