Following are highlights from Ted Lehmann's full review of MerleFest 2008. Thanks for the thoughtful and timely coverage, Ted.
Once again, for the twenty-first year, Merlefest presented a varied, interesting, exciting, engaging, diverse, and frustrating program of American and, increasingly, world music.
This year the weather threatened throughout the festival. Fortunately, the clouds and threat of rain kept the grounds comfortably warm in the evening right through the festival. The loud and wet thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon provided relief from direct sunlight and heat, leaving muddy grounds but no real surprises for Merlefest veterans. By Sunday afternoon, a steady rain had developed leaving precious few people to enjoy the much anticipated Dan Tyminski Band’s closing set.
While the crowd seemed smaller to me than in the previous two years, this is purely subjective judgment. Festival officials tell me that their preliminary estimated total attendance was 76,900, slightly down from last year’s 79,000, but quite good considering the threatening weather and the price of gasoline.
Musically the festival provided many more highlights than disappointments. In no particular order, I’ll point out some of my (our) highlights and disappointments. All judgments are completely my own and Irene’s, and I am happy to have anyone disagree with me, but this is a report on our Merlefest. Yours is likely to have been completely different....
One of the great joys of Merlefest is always the unusual combinations of musicians brought together in jam situations. Girls for Merle was a perfect example of this on Saturday afternoon. Imagine Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, and Sally Van Meter appearing on stage at the same time.
Ralph Stanley showed up for a performance with Doc Watson, David Holt, and T. Michael Coleman. Tim O’Brien appeared at the Creekside Stage with The Infamous Stringdusters for a delightful set. Mando Mania on Saturday afternoon put some of the greatest mandolin players in the world on the stage at once. Tony Williamson hosted Darin Aldridge, Mike Compton, Sierra Hull, Rebecca Lovell, Barry Mitterhoff,James Nash, Tim O’Brien, Tom Rozum, and Sam Bush in an hour-long jam.
Other highlights for me included The Infamous Stringdusters with sets on three major stages on two days before heading off for an appearance at The Grand Ol’ Opry and then a trip to Europe. Blue Highwayhad a fine set on Friday afternoon.It’s easy to take this great band for granted, since they’ve been together without a change for fourteen years. They remain fresh and lively presenting music that manages to be cutting edge progressive while paying due deference to the founding musical ideas of bluegrass music. Laurie Lewis and her band had a very good, strong set on the main stage on Thursday and then followed it up with great courage, taking the stage right after a big thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon.
A major highlight for both Irene and me was the performance of Pete Wernick and Flexigrass. Pete has assembled a band composed of drum, bass, vibraphone, clarinet, and banjo as well as his wife Joan singing in a pop style I had no idea she had the voice for. The music, a sort of jazz-bluegrass fusion was pleasant to the ear and challenging to senses unused to this instrumental combination
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a minor hit last year, earning them an opportunity for complete sets on the Watson Stage, Americana Stage, and Cabin Stage. Their main stage set also featured Joe Thompson, an elderly black fiddler who had deeply influenced their development. It provided a terrific hour of entertaining musical history.
Two sets of young comers let bluegrass fans know the music isn’t only for traditionalists.Sierra Hull and Highway 111 featured the sixteen year old mandolin virtuoso along with young Cory Walker on banjo. Hull also appeared in Mando Mania and Girls for Merle, keeping her busy all weekend. The Lovell sisters, a trio of fine young musicians, were also in frequent evidence. Ruthie Foster, a fine young blues singer from Texas, made a brief appearance on the Cabin Stage, where she quickly captured the audience.The Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven put on a great set on Sunday morning.
Grammy winner Tim O’Brien’s solo set on the main stage, multiple Grammy winner Doc Watson everywhere, and the final set of the weekend played by Dan Tyminski were all very fine and lived up to expectations.
Perhaps the highlight of the weekend for us was the performance of The Circuit Riders. Members of this band were the core of The Country Gentlemen at the time Charlie Waller died. In both their major sets they showed their potential for bluegrass stardom.
There were, of course, bands we didn’t much enjoy. Recognizing this as a matter of taste, I still want to mention a few we found less than satisfactory. Old Crow Medicine Show, a band we had looked forward to seeing, seemed loud and un-melodic, not offering much of interest to us. Similarly, Donna the Buffalo, who we have come to loath, were simply loud and misplaced on the Watson stage late afternoon slot.
The Avett Brothers are loud and undisciplined, although they have a loyal following. Peter Rowan has long outlived his hippy base and needs a new act.I can’t quite understand the musical marriage of Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, an act which gives lip service to bluegrass history while playing often interesting rock with Hornsby at the Steinway Grand, an instrument that seldom graces the Watson stage. Finally, The Sparrow Quartet, featuring Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee played a too long set of discordant modern music, much of it in Chinese, that legitimately belongs in the Felt Auditorium of Lincoln Center, but which drove [away] much of the audience.