I had the time of my life at last year's Merlefest and could never imagine the festival getting any better. But they succeeded. How, well let's see, my first three hours were spent listening to Cadillac Sky, The Greencards, The Gibson Brothers, and Donna the Buffalo. In fact the herd had more to listen to as a result of John Cowan playing with The Doobie Brothers and Jim Lauderdale having Donna the Buffalo as his backup band. Three sets in two days - sort of alleviates the pain of missing them May 14th at The State Theatre. But with that first four, I could have left happy. But there was much more to see, particularly the acoustic blues artists that I discussed here. Obviously Ben Prestage left his mark, and I've always loved Corey Harris and Phil Wiggins. Add in Harry Manx and blues legend John Hammond and this group easily surpassed last year's group. Thanks Roy Book Binder.
What also made this year so enjoyable that several artists I enjoyed for the first time last year; Missy Raines & The New Hip, The Belleville Outfit, and Bearfoot were back again. Some had slight lineup changes, but they were tight - particularly Missy Raines. They are happening... Last year I only saw one set from Cadillac Sky and was determined to see more. That wasn't too difficult since they were scheduled for six sets over two days. I couldn't help but run into the band. I even overheard a brief practice session inside the college as they prepared for the Midnight Jam. These guys may have a zany stage presence, but they are true professionals. I heard another attendee comment that Cadillac Sky is mimicking The Avett Brothers; and you know there may be some truth to that. All artists absorb some influence from other bands - but I think there is way more originality in their music. They can play true bluegrass, gospel, an Americana flavor and well as straight rock n' roll. Also, loved their a Capella song on the Hillside. Yea, Mayfield is entertaining - but he can play and sing - as do the rest of the band. This is one act on the rise.
One band from last year that I didn't follow as much, because of scheduling conflicts was The Greencards. Last year, I followed them from stage to stage. This year I caught a few songs here and there. But those few songs remind me how talented they are. Whenever I hear Carol sing Patty Griffin's "What you are" it sends shivers down my spine. Every single time; that song was written for her to sing. And Kym and Tyler seem to have quickly acquired chemistry and not to omit Jake who adds a fuller sound with the acoustic guitar. The Greencards are easily one of my favorite bands; I may have taken them for granted this year - but fortunately they are returning to Jammin' Java in July.
Last year Scythian was the band with the buzz - you saw crowds growing each successive set. And these guys are entertaining - even when you've heard the same lead in a dozen times. I was glad they were invited back - and Merlefest can not have a Saturday night dance party without them. But the band with the buzz this year had to be Great Big Sea. I've heard bits and pieces over the year, but nothing comes close to a live performance. I'm talking about charisma, heart pounding percussion, crowd participation. I think this is where Scythian wants to be a decade from now - because Great Big Sea is the best alternative folk act I've seen. Fortunately the band is coming to the Filene Center at Wolf Trap in August. Me and the little boy be on the lawn dancing and clapping away.
The strength of Merlefest is the overall talent of artists that they schedule at the festival. Last year I practically ignored the headliners and searched for the unknown acts - particularly in the Lounge. But this year, the headliners were too much of a draw - and I'm not even including Zac Brown. Actually I was never a big fan of the artist - but was impressed with his performance and demeanor at the Midnight Jam. I think the promoters were real happy that he participated; maybe I should take a look at his earlier work and not the CMT videos. In any case, I couldn't believe the scheduling with the other headliners. Some of the headliners were obvious choices; Sam Bush and Dailey & Vincent come to mind. In fact it was the first time I've been able to see the top ranked bluegrass band in action. They are good. Scheduling Steve Martin playing with the Steep Canyon Rangers was not a risk, but a coup. Perhaps the single msot entertaining set - part comedy, part real bluegrass. And it helps having a phenomenal backup band and a $500 ipad. Only a few songs from the Crow really stuck with me, Daddy Played The Banjo being one of them, so I'm really looking forward to Martin's next tour and collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Now, the Merlefest promoters did think outside of the box and scheduled Little Feat and Elvis Costello to headline Friday and Saturday night. Yea, I know Costello performed a few years back, but still - for headliners at Merlefest - not the usual selections. Truth be told, I skipped out of Little Feat, only because I was exhausted after five hours sleep, five hour drive and 12 hours on my feet. Plus I'll see the band on the 9th at The Belmont Country Club when they co-bill with Delbert McClinton for the first show of the Loudoun Summer Music Fest. However, I wasn't going to miss Elvis Costello. I've followed him since high school and "My Aim Is True"; and save for one show at the ACL, I've never seen him live. Then he strolls onstage with an all-star supporting cast lead by Jerry Douglas and Jim Lauderdale. Instant credibility with the audience - this was an alt-country show. He played some new songs - specifically his ode to Doc Watson - but his arrangements for the classics were brilliant.(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, Every Day I Write The Book, and Allison stand out. All I know is that I need to pick up Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.
Saturday was easily the best (and longest) day of music I've experienced, and that doesn't even include the Midnight Jam. The event was hosted by Zac Brown and its a time for the artists to unwind and experiment. The The Greencards played some Don Henley, The Duhks played a little boogie, most played together: Cadillac Sky, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo. The stars however, were Samantha and Zeb of the Snyder Family Band. Not only was their performance astonishing because of their youth (11 and 14 respectively), but there stage presence were as good as any mature band. Closing my eyes I thought I heard Tony Rice on guitar and she was the little conductor - nodding to each guest their turn to take lead. How could anyone follow that performance. That was an eye opener - I needed it after listening to 16 hours of live music. What a day.