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Merlefest kicks into gear

Wilkesboro Community College (Merlefest), Wilkesboro, N.C., April 26, 2012

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

Even before the gates opened for the first full day of Merlefest, the Charlotte, N.C. roots rock band The New Familiars serenaded those waiting in line with an acoustic, totally unplugged set at the Welcome Stage outside the festival. They would get to rock out properly later in the afternoon, playing the Plaza stage with a high energy set of something approximating rock and roll roots music - "Roots and Roll" perhaps.

One of the earliest sets of the day came from a group that had a pretty busy day. The SC Broadcasters, an old-time trio from Charleston, S.C., played their opening set at the Traditional Stage, to a surprisingly large audience for 10 a.m. They went on to play the Dance tent and the Creekside Stage later in the day, and they'll be back on Sunday for a Southern Gospel Hour in the morning.

The Broadcasters play songs from the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, Roy Acuff and even some original tunes that sound equally rustic. Theirs is a basic yet energetic sound, with two female vocals and one male around a single microphone, trading guitar, banjo and fiddle from song to song. They were so tightly grouped around the mike at several points it appeared that the fiddle bow might poke the guitarist in the eye or at least bow across his face. A highlight of the group's early set was a duo of the two girls on Ralph Stanley's Little Birdie, with just a banjo for accompaniment.

Bayou Diesel opened the Watson Stage with a rocket-fueled set of zydeco and Cajun music, made even more remarkable by the fact that the band is not from Louisiana but Black Mountain, N.C.

Peter Rowan is a fixture at Merlefest, and his year opened at the traditional tent to an overflow crowd of fans; he treated them to a new song, Ragged Old Dream from his upcoming new album, due out Tuesday.

One of the great things about the scheduling at Merlefest is that many groups play multiple sets on different days, so Red Molly played the Hillside stage in the early afternoon after being seen on the previous evening by the crowd at the Watson and Cabin stages. Tara Nevins played an acoustic set at the Traditional stage before heading to the Americana Stage for a full-bodied rock 'n' roll set with her band Donna The Buffalo.

If there's a theme so far for Merlefest 2013, it may be the 'Year of the Ladies' on many of the stages. Nevins, for one, but also the Honeycutters featuring the songs of Amanda Platt, the Black Lilies on the Americana stage with some potent roots music and a powerful female presence in Trisha Gene Brady (As well as former Robinella and the CC String Band founder Cruz Contreras), and the main stage debut of Rounder Records artist Della Mae, a five-member all-female group that blends the lines between folk, bluegrass and country while singing the most gorgeous harmony vocals this side of a heavenly choir.

The Snyder Family Band are one of the more exciting young acts in bluegrass, but this year's Creekside Stage set from the group showed that they are growing musically as well as physically. Fiddler and vocalist Samantha Snyder is now 14 and big brother Zeb is 17, and they are playing more than just straight-ahead bluegrass these days.

They peppered their set with western swing, blues, classical, and jazz (covering a tune from fusion jazz pioneer Jean-Luc Ponty, of all things). The adventuresome nature of their musical endeavors makes it seem like a young Alison Krauss and a teenage Chris Thile got together and formed a band. And yes, the two of them are that good instrumentally, and they're only going to get better.

The SC Broadcasters had to follow the Snyder Family Band on the Creekside stage after watching and clapping from the side for much of the set; they more than rose to the occasion with more classics from the Carters and the Delmore Brothers before stunning the crowd with an original by singer and guitarist David Sheppard, Waiting For My Darlin', from their recently released new album "Short Time To Stay Here." A song about a woman waiting for her man to come home from the front during World War I, it ends when his body arrives on the train, in a box. Sheppard sings it in an appropriately mournful style, and the harmonies from fellow Broadcasters Ivy Sheppard and Sarah Osborne set just the right tragic tone. A new song, but one with a sentiment that transcends time and place - kind of like the SC Broadcasters themselves, who make old-time music new again with every enthusiastic note they play.

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