icking off the first Merlefest since the passing of founder Doc Watson had to be a little intimidating, but Rebel Records bluegrass band Dehlia Low handled it with ease, moving through a sunny set of sweet sounding bluegrass on a picture perfect afternoon.
The band was supposed to have played last year's 25th anniversary edition of Merlefest but singer/guitarist Anya Hinkle had a baby about two months early, so they missed their chance to be, as they put it from the stage today, "The most pregnant band ever at Merlefest" (Their other female member, Stacy Claude was also pregnant at the time).
The Sigmon Stringers, a three generation family band, had members from age 11 to 80, and they put on a spirited set on the Cabin stage. Highlights included a bluegrassed-up version of Tracy Chapman's Gimme One Reason a with 16-year-old Mollie Sigmon on lead vocals as well as a couple of powerful gospel tunes. Instrumentally, banjo picker Anna Sigmon, 21, stood out, even on the overdone classic Foggy Mountain Breakdown, where the rest of the band could barely keep up with the breakneck pace she set.
The Greencards hit the stage and broke the bluegrass spell for a moment with songs from throughout their 11-year career, and as Merlefest regulars the past few years, it was nice to see them on the Watson Stage this early in the weekend.
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage brought the bluegrass sound back in full swing with a crisp set of professional bluegrass punctuated by product placement for an iPad Mini (they gave one away during their set) and Martha White Flour, which has been the band's sponsor for many years. Vincent's newest album is an all-gospel release, and she did a several tunes from it including The Old Rugged Cross and an a capella original, Promised Land which sounded like an ancient shape note hymn in the four-part harmonies of the group's singers.
Leon Russell's career spans so many different artists and albums that it was hard to know what to expect with his first Merlefest appearance, but he didn't disappoint. John Cowan came out to sing lead vocals on a swinging version of Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and Russell's band rocked, rolled and got with the rhythm and blues on both classic hits such as Tightrope and Song For You and re-imagined covers in the Russell barrelhouse piano style, from Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall to Georgia, Wild Horses, and a medley of songs including Jumping Jack Flash, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Paint It Black and Kansas City.
The Cabin stage performances can sometimes be local filler, but often they are one of the main acts playing an extra set. Red Molly, who'll hit the Watson stage itself later in the festival, popped up on the Cabin stage on Thursday night, with the highlight of the set being a song they introduced as being written by North Carolina songwriter Jonathan Byrd.
Thursday night headliners the Charlie Daniels Band played an especially jam-friendly set, leaning not on the classic '70s and '80s hits he's well known for, but instead stretching out instrumentally on several tunes. On one, Daniels introduced the song by saying, "This is the best band I've ever had," and proceeding to roll off a lengthy solo-trading song he called Black Ice, punctuated by what will probably go down as the longest drum solo in Merlefest history - so long, the band left the stage for a while and came back. Daniels did not completely eschew his hits. Legend Of Wooley Swamp was a slower, creepier version while the set-closing Devil Went Down to Georgia left the crowd satisfied, if exhausted.
Late night at Merlefest means the Dance Tent, where one band a night puts on their most dance-worthy set for a standing-room only crowd on a wooden floor. Opening night dance honors went to the Celtic rock band Enter the Haggis, and they rose to the occasion with bagpipes, trumpet and harmonica augmenting their more conventional guitar-bass-drums lineup. The crowd approved, young cloggers sharing the floor with older onlookers.