MerleFest 2009 Friday
Note: I missed Thursday ’cause I had to be in the office for the Doc gig, so I can’t report on opening day, but I understand it was excellent.
MerleFest is is 3/5 music festival, 1/5 carnival, and 1/5 things I am too old to know much about. There is almost a bit of baseball in the mix too, as the air is filled with the drift of peanuts and popcorn. There’s Thai food and turkey legs and BBQ and burgers on the grill; something for all. In the old days, there was a lot of hay straw and mud, but improvements in the field and some new paved footpaths have corrected most of that.
As I walked toward the stage, a fellow sat in a lawn chair and smoked a morning cigar.
“What kinda mandolin you go there?” I asked.
“Gibson F-9. You play?”
He handed it to me. “Nice patina on this one.” I picked out a few notes, and hit a chop. “Barks good, too. I like the set up.”
“Thanks. Good day for it, huh?”
“Yeah boy. Supposed to hit 80.”
Friday morning opened with Darin and Brooke Aldridge on the Cabin Stage. They have been a presence for some time now in the Carolinas, and Darin toured with the Country Gentleman for Charlie Waller’s last seven years. When he cut his mandolin intro on ”Wayfaring Stranger,’ the security folks and volunteers in lime colored vests migrated towards the stage and began to listen. When Brooke started to sing, everyone moved even closer and began to take photos. The performers back stage leaned over the rail to listen to the new kids on the block. With their new CD, “I’ll Go With You,” Brooke is the new female voice on the national bluegrass scene, and one that will contend for female vocalist of the year very soon. By the time she rocked the crowd with ‘He Ain’t Never,’ the crowd was on their feet clapping and swaying. MerleFest was on.
From there is was to the Creekside stage. The Krugers feature Jens, the world’s fastest banjo man, although today he featured a more laid back and melodic style.
I bought some strings, and hustled up to the Pit stage to hear David Holt. David is not only an excellent old time clawhammer style banjo man, but plays the ham bones, spoons, jaw harp, and a variety of other percussive contraptions he has accumulated in his travels. Buddy Green was with him today. He was the best harmonica man I’ve ever heard. When a man can tell you the technique to bend a minor third on the mouth harp, he has total command.
Someone said, “I believe you have practiced hard.”
He replied, “I think it is more like obsession.”
He went on to talk about more technique. I may be misquoting him slightly, because I know nothing about harmonicas, but he said he got some tones by taking apart his harmonicas and re-voicing selected reeds by altering the ends. The man has studied his instrument.
I am sure of one thing. My harmonica doesn’t have all those notes in it. He was my sleeper for the day that I did not know enough about. He floats around on YouTube. Catch him if you can.
Sierra Hull was at the Hillside stage. She is but a teenager, and has some hip banjo kid in blue jeans, sunglasses, and a black shirt with some kinda silver floral arrangement embroidered on the back. His name was Cory Walker, and he was even younger than Sierra. These kids will astound you with their professionalism. I can’t remember much about that age, but it seems back then no one picked that way.
Tony Williamson (the beast) flanked by Sierra and Rebecca Lovell (the beauties) conducted their usual fine mandolin workshop. The front row was all young people. The hung on every note and word. I think we might see a mandolin resurgence, at least if this audience is indicative of the crowds these young folks are bringing in to the festivals. I noticed all those young’uns hung around to absorb the wisdom of their teen-aged elders. Bless Sierra’s heart, she stayed to answer every question. I didn’t bother them. I wouldn’t want to interfere with a scene that cool.
From there it was back to the Main Stage for the Grascals. Danny Roberts is as fast and clean as they get on his Gibson Master Model mandolin. He is not only a top shelf mandolinist, he builds them at Gibson’s Nashville shop. Master luthier; master player. Terry Eldridge is a pure country voice. Listen to ‘ Today I Started Loving You Again.’
Kristin Scott Benson shows she didn’t win the IBMA banjo player of the year just cause she’s young and a pretty face; the kid can burn up the five string. She not only blisters the breakdowns as well as any man alive, but plays the backup with uncommon sensitivity. Maybe it is from years of nurture, but women seem to know how to be supportive and make a man look better. I know my Marfar does. The Grascals are fine players, but Kristin sure did brighten up the stage when she joined the group.
I like a female in the mix. As Sierra said, bluegrass was once a boy’s club. I remember when it was that way, and the change is good. Why have a refrigerator limited to bologna and beer when it can be everything from tofu and casseroles to chops for the grill?
Marfar and I dodged an afternoon thundershower, and stopped at the bagel shop for supper. The old folks at home gotta take a nap, but then we’re gonna pick a little and troop out for the night shows. Will get back to the writing gig soon, but right now it is all about the music. If you’ve never been to MerleFest it is sure one to consider; the biggest one of the East Coast I know of. Back to the music. Will report more later.
If you want good photos of the festival, check out the English Professor’s blog at www.tedlehmann.blogspot.com. His are always the best.
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