aturdays at MerleFest are busy, with choices to be made about whom to see when and where. The Hillside stage is the focus for many with the Hillside Album Hour, a set by the band The Waybacks where they play a classic rock album in its entirety along with special guest musicians and singers. This year the festival stacked the Hillside stage with talent, perhaps knowing there would be an expectant crowd on the hill in the hours leading up to the big reveal of what album was being covered this year.
After a long set from Mark Newton and Frank Thomas, including a closing rendition of their bluegrass chart hit from 2013, "Old McDonald Sold the Farm," Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen made its MerleFest debut.
Solivan's not the typical bluegrass picker in either appearance or style; his shaved head is perhaps analogous to his pared-down and sometimes jazzy approach to acoustic music in general. Guitarist Chris Luckett is one of several band members that fall into the "award-winning" category, and his guitar tune in the middle of the band's set was a crowd pleaser, featuring Solivan on fiddle rather than his usual mandolin. Closing out the set was a cover of Pure Prairie League's "Country Song" that they promised was going to be on an upcoming album.
Keller Williams followed up his Watson stage performance from the night before with more intense workouts with Larry and Jenny Keel on board this round instead of the McCourys. The free-ranging set included an opening version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall" and fan favorites like the speedy "Hopped Up on Goofballs."
The Steep Canyon Rangers offered a preview of tonight's headlining Watson Stage appearance, but being on just before the Album Hour is a thankless slot with throngs of fans filing in for the festivities and jockeying for position on the hill throughout. The Rangers turned in a tight, entertaining set regardless of distractions, and primed the crowd for another round tonight.
The Album hour itself was as packed as it has been the last couple of years, thousands cramming on to every available space in the natural amphitheater surrounding the Hillside stage. The album was revealed in the first song, a rocking take on "Carry On," to be "Déją Vu" from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The T Sisters were brought in for most of the songs to recreate those rich, tight harmonies, and Celia Woodsmith from Della Mae popped up a few times, most notably singing much of the lead part on "Helpless" and a bluesy take on "Woodstock." Jim Lauderdale's vocal turn on "Almost Cut My Hair" was overshadowed only by the tremendous guitar work of Waybacks leader James Nash, a searing rendition that had the crowd on its feet in appreciation. Overall, with the extra singers this was a great choice, as the audience seemed to know and sing along to almost the entire album.
Tonight's Watson stage lineup is heavy on bluegrass, from the patriarchs like Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs to Sam Bush and the Steep Canyon Rangers.