Thursday, April 30, 2009

Merlefest: The Artists

The best part of Merlefest is that it not only attracts the established artists, but it is a showcase for rising performers as well as novices. At Merlefest, anyone can bring an instrument onto the grounds, and in fact, the promoters actually encourage it. They have established several pickin' tents, open mic tents, the open mic coffeehouse, and the gravel stage - all for amateurs and aspiring artists . And throughout the festival grounds, at any part of the day, small cliques of musicians form - young and old - to pick and learn from each other. There are also official instrument contests (banjo, mandolin, guitar) as well as the Chris Austin Songwriters Contest. "The festival for the proletariat".

Over the course of the festival we were able to meet a few of these aspiring artists - first with fiddler Wyatt Espalin and guitarist Cobi Ferguson of Trees Leave. The duo performed in the Chris Austin Songwriters Contest in the bluegrass category - having one of the 12 songs selected out of 840. The Nashville based band is already establishing a name for themselves on the east coast, performing regularly from Florida to New York. They also have a nice CD out called "Run" which contains the song they submitted to the songwriter contest "Water Falls" and one we like even more in "Artificial Yesterday".

We also had a chance encounter at the Friday night Coffeehouse when Neeley Bridges and Andy Jobe had a chance to perform because of a scheduling conflict. The two formed the Neeley Bridges and Andy Jobe Band and are currently based out of New York City. The decided to attend Merlefest because Bridges is a local girl from Winston-Salem and they were hoping for a chance to perform to an audience at the festival. After listening to Bridges' debut album "Devil On My Shoulder", this band has a chance - she has a great voice - just listen to the first track "On The Ground".

Over the three days we followed several rising acts starting with Bearfoot. This young band has a new lead singer in Odessa Jorgensen and a new CD Doors & Windows. This is a nice compilation and over the course of 4 sets we were able to hear our favorite tune, Time Is No Medicine", three times. The one downfall of the CD is it doesn't showcase their musical talents well enough. This group can play as shown by the three standing ovations we saw the band receive. Another bluegrass band we followed closely was the Spring Creek Bluegrass Band. They also have a new CD, "Way Up on a Mountain" and interestingly two of our favorites are instrumentals composed by banjo player Chris Elliott. The band's performance Saturday at the Walker Center was awesome. On Saturday we made sure we penciled in The Belleville Outfit since that was the only day they were scheduled to perform, albeit three times. They started at the main Watson stage accompanied by two of our new favorites: The Dixie Bee-Liners and The Farewell Drifters. They then had a popular set at the Creekside stage where we heard the first samples of their cross overs into jazz and blues. They ended the day at the Dance tent, having fun and playing a few covers in their unique rootsy, swing, bluesy style. Look for their new CD, Time to Stand, to be released shortly. We only had a chance to watch one Ollabelle set, but what a set, with Martha Scanlan and David Bromberg playing the entire set and Jim Lauderdale sitting in for a couple.

We have already mentioned The Greencards in previous posts concerning the festival, so the last rising band we'd like to focus on was one of the "grunts" of the festival: Scythian. They opened the festival Thursday on the Watson stage and finished that day at the opening night dance. Over the next three days they performed at least 5 more times closing with a jammed packed, entertaining performance Sunday on the Austin stage. Don't come expecting to sit and relax during one of Scythian's performances. They expect everyone to participate - from dancing, singing, jumping, ... whatever. I think we had the most fun watching their antics and listening to them play - they can play. Not bad for a group who last year were confined strictly to the gravel stage.

Then there are the established acts and superstars. We're talking about Doc Watson, himself, The Del McCoury Band, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, David Bromberg, Emmylou Harris, The Waybacks, and BeauSoleil. You know going in that each chance to see one of these artists is special and are guaranteed a solid performance. But by far, the best sets we saw were the two given by Donna the Buffalo Friday, first on the Hillside stage then that evening in the dance tent. What more do you need to say about this group; I could watch Jeb Puryear play guitar all day. And Ms. Nevins is not too shabby herself; the same for the entire band. They are awesome; Cajun rock or whatever you want to call it. Add in appearances by Jim Lauderdale and Leonard Podolak of the The Duhks and that's a memorable show. We are now card carrying members of The Herd.

That's it for this year's coverage. We wish we could have seen more performances, particularly from The Duhks, Cadillac Sky, and Missy Raines & The New Hip. By the way, the later has a new CD out, Inside Out, that we can only describe as cool. Mostly instrumentals, but great listening material. We hope to see you next year.

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