Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The highs and lows of Merlefest

By Ted Lehmann

Merlefest is roughly 20,000 different festivals. There’s such of variety of offerings on the 13 sound stages that attendees can build their own festival to suit their needs and preferences. It is truly a great festival. That being said, Merlefest is undergoing a series of changes in how it presents itself and trying to define what it wants to be. During two of the four days of the festival the Wilkes Community College campus, site of the festival, burst at the seams.

I'll get back to the kinks in the logistics later. First some comments on the wonderful musical experience. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the first small event held in 1988 in remembrance of Merle Watson, who was tragically killed in a tractor accident in 1985. Friends of Merle’s, who had played with him in his band Frosty Morn and with Doc Watson held the stage, playing and reminiscing about Merle.

Impromptu reunion
Sam Bush hosted a jam on Saturday evening featuring Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn, and more. Suddenly, the crowd began to realize that all the former members of the New Grass Revival were on stage at the same time just as the jam on stage broke into one of their songs. It’s been twenty years since this band has performed together.

Another high point was seeing Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs sitting on stage together. Other musical highlights included Alison Krause and Union Station with Tony Rice signing songs associated with Rice’s long career. Blue Highway, Steep Canyon Rangers, Del McCoury, the Cherryholmes Family, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Earl Scruggs and Family, the Infamous Stringdusters, Sierra Hull, the Lovell Sisters, and, of course, Pete and Joan Wernick played the Watson Stage as well as the Cabin Stage and many others. People wanting a bluegrass festival had plenty to choose from.

Those wishing to hear a wider variety of music could luxuriate in Elvis Costello, Pam Tillis, The Duhks, Darrell Scott, Crooked Still, Tuobab Krewe, Uncle Earl, Robinella, Roy Bookbinder, the Gospel Jubilators and more. This festival offers more in Americana, mostly acoustic, than anyone could absorb in four days.

Each year we get to hear music that we haven’t heard before and find we love it and want to hear more of it. This year, for me, the breakout band was Crooked Still. I had heard Crooked Still before, but found their cellist, Rashad Eggleston, to be affected and his instrument out of keeping with how I thought I wanted to hear their music. This time we listened to a full set at the Creekside Stage and found their music to be lively, engaging, and strong. While Eggleston still appears affected to me, his mastery of the cello is undeniable and its place in their music clear and concise.

Growing pains
As for the logistics, in order to try to make the festival fit and in seeking to provide greater green space and maintain a sense of openness, festival organizers this year spread the various amenities and facilities around the grounds. The effects of this, as one might suppose, turned out to be both positive and negative. There was a great deal more walking than in the past. The vendors’ area, now dubbed The Shoppes at Merlefest was spread out further and we had to make a special effort to walk through it.

One of the tents we usually visit is the Heritage Crafts tent. This tent features regional crafts people, many actually working on their craft at the festival. Because it was moved so far away from the main stage (Watson), we couldn’t find time to get over to it. In recent years we have nearly always found something in this tent to purchase for ourselves or as a gift. There seemed to be fewer vendors this year, but this might be a perception due to the dispersion of the vendors.

The Merlefest Mall, where artists CDs and other memorabilia are sold still stood squarely in the midst of the traffic pattern, encouraging people to enter and buy CDs. Operated by the Chamber of Commerce, a $3.00 premium is added to the price of each item.

Food this year was also somewhat more dispersed. The main food tent, where local civic organizations and schools offer a broad variety of meals and snacks, was, if anything, somewhat improved this year. It was not, however, enlarged. On Friday and Saturday from shortly after noon until well after dinner time, lines were long and slow. It became difficult to get a meal without a significant wait in line.

If you were lucky enough to get food and enjoy it, the area across the road where the portable toilets are located has been reduced in size. Two air-conditioned trailers were put in place, making it possible for the squeamish to use flush toilets, but causing impossibly long waits, especially at the women’s door. The number of conventional porta-potties was reduced by, at a guess, two thirds, leading to long lines there, too. Now it may be that there was actually no reduction in the number of facilities provided throughout the grounds, but many were in out of the way places and in small numbers, meaning that the lines there increased also. One of the joys of Merlefest has been that throughout the festival you could count on plenty of porta-potties and know that they would be frequently cleaned. The staff has continued the cleaning policy, but placement was an issue commented on by many people I shared lines with.

On the sound board
It’s worth saying a word about the sound. At the subsidiary stages, sound was up to the usual high standard expected at Merlefest. We attended events at the Creekside Stage and the Americana Stage as well as the main Watson Stage. At Creekside and Americana the sound was wonderful, clean and crisp without ever getting too loud.

On the main stage, however, the sound left a good deal to be desired. On opening night, for instance, the Cherryholmes Family was well into their first song before someone in the sound booth realized their microphone was off. The family regrouped and started over, but such fluffs should never happen. On Friday night The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band closed the evening. Country singer/songwriter Sean Camp was sitting in for Jimmy Fallon. Both his instrument mic and his vocal mic were off for much of the set.

Such oversights suggest the people in the sound booth weren’t really paying attention to what was happening on stage and a good performance was lost. The Dirt Band is justly famed and their performances are polished and full bodied. Being deprived of part of their sound does them no good.

Finally, the sound people this year seemed to substitute volume for quality, almost as if they were used to working concerts with electric music where booming sound is the order of the day. Merlefest, however, is largely an acoustic festival. Sound technicians need to be sharply attuned to the desired sound of each instrument and to mix it carefully to achieve for a crowd the effect that would be created for people standing around a circle listening to un-amplified instruments. This they failed to do. Musicians on stage also seemed to be having a difficult time getting the monitors to reflect the kind of balance they needed to optimize their performances.

Merlefest is huge –- too big to encapsulate in a single review. Give it a try and see if it fits your idea of how you want to experience music. For us, despite the crowds and its expense, it is a festival we look forward to every year and leave tired, but satisfied that we’ve heard lots of the best American music has to offer.

Thanks to the folks at Savannah Lakes Resort & Marina in McCormick, SC for the use of their broadband facilities. This is a beautiful site if you're ever in the area. We're here for the Lewis Family Fesitval this weekend.

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