riday night at Merlefest in the past has tended to be the adventuresome evening, with more rock and other genres represented. This year's Friday night wildcard was the Del McCoury Band with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who released an album together in 2011 called "American Legacies" that combined the McCoury's classic bluegrass with the jazz history of the Dixieland masters.
Following two stellar, but uneventful sets of bluegrass from IIIrd Tyme Out (offering up a nicely done version of Country Roads) and the Steep Canyon Rangers (without Steve Martin for this year's set), the anticipation was high, and mostly justified by the energetic performance they presented.
The set was divided up into a combined section, two segments of each act on their own and then a big finish back together. In the first combined stretch, the jazz band overwhelmed the bluegrassers in sound and volume, rendering McCoury and company almost superfluous to the proceedings. There wasn't much difference when they left the stage during the jazz-only section, where the proceedings were kicked into high gear with the sax and trombone getting particularly good workouts. McCoury probably knows who the big shots are with this pairing, as the bluegrass-only section was potent but much shorter in duration.
The big finale was the point where the combined forces really gelled, with raucous versions of I'll Fly Away and When the Saints Go Marching In; they could have simply jammed on these two tunes and called it a night, and the crowd would have gotten their money's worth.
Gov't Mule, a rock and blues band fronted by Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band, had a hard act to follow, and they didn't particularly rise to the occasion, performing a plodding set of mid-tempo blues rock which never quite delivered on the jamming potential of the players involved. Highlights included a grooving take on Tom Waits' Get Behind the Mule, which wasn't written for them, but could have been, and a guest spot from Sam Bush on the closest thing they had to a real jam.