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Snider keeps good times coming at MerleFest

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 25, 2014

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

With more than a hint of rain in the forecast and overcast skies, the second day of MerleFest 2014 kicked the festival into high, multi-stage gear with tons of choices and artists to see and hear.

Shannon Whitworth played a cool, mostly mellow set early at the Hillside stage, with a band that included frequent musical partner Barrett Smith on lead acoustic and electric guitar. The title track from their last album together, "High Tide," was a highlight of the set, and they dipped back into Whitworth's debut for another title cut, the easy, loping country folk of "No Expectations."

Red June appeared at MerleFest in 2012, but skipped last year. They looked happy to be back and played several songs from a brand new album. Of those, the instrumental "31" showed off their tendency toward emotionally resonant material, even when it doesn't have any words.

The South Carolina Broadcasters debuted at MerleFest last year, and the Creekside stage area was packed with familiar faces who had seen the energetic old-time trio before. With a set that was heavy on the gospel tunes found on the group's latest album, "Diamonds in the Rough," it was a spirited set in more ways than one. The Broadcasters have a respect and reverence for the early days of country music that's unrivaled in any other current act, and they can pull out songs from Ola Belle Reed, Jimmy Martin and the Carter Family to prove it.

Making their MerleFest debut at the Creekside stage in only their second trip stateside was the Irish brother-sister band I Draw Slow, which despite its origins doesn't have a fully Irish sound. Their subject matter does tend toward the Irish conflicts, war and the like, but they also showcased a knowledge and mastery of American old-time music via a taut rendition of the Skillet Lickers "Don't You Cry My Honey."

Another act that skipped a year but returned for 2014 is The Steel Wheels, and their set at the Americana stage was a joyous occasion for both audience and band. Singer Trent Wagler related a story from the stage about his 2012 festival experience with his young daughter in tow, when he asked what her favorite part was she replied "Seeing Doc Watson." The band tempered the more upbeat, sunny material with some darker fare including their cover of Tom Waits' "No More Rain" that unfortunately didn't serve to keep the rain showers away for long, as they opened up on the Hillside crowd at Todd Snider's set just a short while later.

Snider was appearing at MerleFest for the first time, and he appeared to have a good time, cracking witticisms via his bitingly satirical material, and the Hillside crowd roared in approval. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and his music, Snider held the audience both spellbound and highly amused in turn.

With the rain forecasted to head out later, tonight's highlights include the sets from Keller Williams with the Traveling McCourys and also Old Crow Medicine Show.

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