by Jeff Roberson
Saturday, Apr 28: Jubal's Kin Festival GroundsSaturday at MerleFest broke hard and cold. Our camping neighbors had an impromptu jam session at 3 a.m., which is to be expected when camping at a music festival geared towards people who not only love to watch and listen, but also play. It would have been one thing to hear the soft strains of a string jam or the gentle harmony of "Wildwood Flower," but some dude shouting the lyrics to "Whipping Post" over badly tuned guitars played really hard … not the thing mountain dreams are made from.So I sat, at sun up, reading and drinking coffee, plotting revenge and the instead of taking my revenge, made the accused coffee, read some more and generally moved real slow. Crustymarhsmellowman. I did get to play a couple tunes with Pete McWhirter as he moved past to grab some coffee on his way to open his booth. Then I moved real slow some more. Really real slow. After lunch, I decided to make an attempt to see some music.I had already missed Jim Lauderdale at the Creekside Stage. To bad, I like some Jim Lauderdale and it would have been a nice wake up, but there you are. I saw on the schedule Jubal's Kin at the Dance Tent, looked at the clock and … damn missed that, too. But what ho! There they are on the schedule at the Americana Tent immediately following their Dance Tent set. It's a MerleFest miracle! I grabbed my camera and another cup of coffee and headed out.Jubal's Kin, all nerves and bad house sound on Day 1, was all smooth and in good voice on Day 3. They filed the promise I thought I saw at the Cabin Stage on what always seems like an eternity ago and delivered a set full of vigor, with pristine sound delivered by the sound person. Their originals are fresh with sparse instrumentation and the kind of tight harmonies that only siblings can deliver. Never lyrically embarrassing with overplayed earnestness or too casual observation, they meld in with beautifully arranged and originally considered traditional tunes. There's "The Cuckoo," that ancient English broadside, rendered as if Billie Holiday had spent some time in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. "Buffalo Gal" was reconsidered as a pop tune with a well delivered encouragement to jump in on the chorus and sing along. Gaelanne's fiddle playing is absolutely gorgeous in a John Hartford/Matt Comb's kind of way, though leaning a bit heavier on the front of the beat as opposed to sitting in the pocket. And her banjo playing is just delicious. They added one more member for this set — "Uncle Joe" on pedal steel and fiddle. With "Baby Brother" on bass, Jubal's Kin appears to be a family band.Satisfied my instincts were intact, I left the Americana Stage to catch some other music. I wondered into the Traditional Tent to catch some of mountain legend Red June. He was explaining to the audience what a jam session was. Have I mentioned the Traditional Tent smells like a barn? I don't think it's intentional, but the wet grass combined with an enclosed space has rendered an unfavorable impression. After the lesson on what a "jam" is, Red invited a local banjo player up to do a fiddle tune with the fiddle player who didn't bring a fiddle, but did bring a mandolin. Not to fear! You can play fiddle tunes on mandolin (or piano for that matter), so he requested the newest banjo player and the fiddle player with the mandolin decide on a tune they both knew and then play it. Five minutes of discussion and tuning followed. As I headed out of the tent I thought "Just like a jam session," and went down to the Creekside Cabin to catch the rest of the Snyder Family Band and the following act, Sierra Hull and Highway 111.The Snyder Family Band is a family Bluegrass band (no irony at MerleFest!). Like all Bluegrass bands they have a banjo, sing harmonies and play Bluegrass. Of course they play it really well. People love them. Standing ovation.I waited around for Sierra Hull and Highway 111 to take the stage. Sierra Hull, 5-foot-nothing and former wiz kid master of the mandolin is now a promising songwriter and ingenue. I'm familiar with this script and am bored not two minutes into the first song. Sigh. I stop in the field in front of the Watson Stage to hear some of "Assembly of Dust." Young Nashville Country script. Know it. Boring. Moving on.It's coming up on 3 p.m. and time to give my sister a break in her booth in the Heritage Tent. Nancy Roberson is a weaver based out of Knoxville, Tenn. She's been showing, selling and demonstrating at MerleFest for about as long as there has been a MerleFest. She heads out for her afternoon nap (apparently a hardwired Roberson DNA trait) and I pleasantly meet the mass of retail customers streaming by and wondering into her booth. Nancy makes shawls. Well kind of. Not only does she design each warp for the loom, but on these particular pieces of clothing, she has design the shawl itself. It's twisted, sewn up the back, and pulled over your head like a loose fitting sweater. The front gathers in soft bunches and hangs across the chest. The ladies love them. Woven of soft cotton and rayon with the occasional silk woven in for effect, the main color of each shawl is broken up with a rhythm of competing and sometimes complimentary colors. People can't help but be drawn in by the colors and when the reach out and touch them, you always get an "Oooooo, these feel so nice and are so beautiful." If you don't, it's a replicant — ready your phasers.When Nancy returned, I checked the schedule and cheese whiz on a cracker if Jubal's Kin wasn't playing in the barn-like Traditional Tent. Finally a chance to catch this band in more intimate surroundings, smell be damned. I headed over, got there early and claimed a seat near the front. In short order the band was on stage, laughing and calling out songs. They moved though a load of traditional tunes, all rendered in a sweet, imaginative way, like "Dinah Blow Your Horn," with added lyrics and a new verse melody. The Carter Family's "No Depression" was delivered in soul rendering pain. About midway through the set, a guitar string broke enabling some spontaneous double fiddle and dancing. While the guitar player stepped off stage, "Uncle Joe" and Gaelanne tuned their fiddles and discussed which tune to play. In a matter of thirty seconds (this is no a jam session) launched into a Skillet Lickers number my dad probably danced to when he was their age. A friend jumped up on stage and launched into some spirited clogging. Not to be undone, "Baby Brother" put his bass down, peeled off his shoes and joined the Appalachian chorus line at the end of the stage with some well executed Buck Dancing. Yes sir, these kids from Florida are the real shit. I've spent decades in front of poseurs, wannabees, shitty players and hopefuls. Using a foundation of traditional music obviously passed along from a family that loves this stuff at an early age, Jubal's Kin are making something very real, unique and personal that compels you to be a part. This is why I come to MerleFest. Thanks, guys, for inviting me in.Exhausted from a night of no sleep and a day of wandering and finding Jubal's Kin, I headed back to my book and coffee and called it a day.
by Jeff Roberson
Friday Evening, Apr 27: MerleFest Festival GroundsAfter lunch, I was ready for something a little more upbeat, so I headed back to the Americana stage to check out The Lost Bayou Ramblers. I caught these guys last year at the same stage, and they brought the place down. I suppose most Cajun and Zydeco is infectious — that constant backbeat and sing-songy lilt of the melodies, but done well, it can be a bit mind blowing. The Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from Lafayette, La. and their Zydeco is the real deal. Not quite as hard hitting as The Bluerunners, they still bring an enormous drum sound to an already rhythm-heavy beat. Fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, double bass, acoustic guitar and drums — the fiddle, accordion and electric guitar feed a triple-stack tone attack to every melody. It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd ca. 1975 without the volume, hair or rednecks. It's really something to behold and listen to. The fiddler sings and works the crowd in both French and English, the bass player holds his big acoustic bass like he's ready to swing it over his head, while the electric guitar player stands at the front of the stage arena rock style and the acoustic player runs back and forth behind everyone. These guys are regulars at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette and I suspect a trip to catch them in such intimate surroundings would be life changing. Check YouTube for some of their videos.I left the Americana stage a bit exhausted and headed over to see what was going on in the Traditional Tent and found Phil and Gaye Johnson in the middle of their set. Long time radio host of various roots music programs, Phil and Gaye do tight harmonies and Roots-based acoustic music. Easy to listen to, they move from original to traditional and without a little bit of knowledge of traditional music, it would be easy to confuse what's original and what's not. Phil's a fantastic acoustic and dobro guitar player moving easily between slide, flatpicking, various forms of fingerpicking and sometimes both. The music is not something I generally sit and listen to, but like everything you see at MerleFest, the playing is top notch and professionally presented.I slipped out of the tent and as I walked past the picking area, I could here the strains of Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce moving though the air. Like a lot of kids brought up in the 1970s, Peter was my first real introduction to Bluegrass music though the Old and In The Way LP. My dad had a few Bill Monroe LPs, but my mom wouldn't let him play that "hillbilly" music while she was around, which was pretty much all the time. I wasn't planning on heading back to the Watson Stage, but I was intrigued. As I got closer, Peter was doing an slow acoustic version of "Panama Red." Frankly, I thought he was mailing it in, but I was still pretty far from the stage, so I kept moving in. By the time I got close enough to the stage to take pictures, which is basically standing in the front in everyone's way, he easy doing a song called "The Raven" and it was mesmerizing. It's probably Bluegrass heresy, but off all the Bluegrass I've heard over the last 35 years, his is the tenor I associate with "that sound" and, man, he's still got it. It rises and floats and breaks in all the right places. I took some pictures and grabbed a seat near the back of the reserved section where the sound would be optimal. His band was outstanding. Peter on acoustic joined by a electric guitar player playing shimmering notes, a lap steel player doing pedal licks and swells, acoustic bass and drums. The lap steel player was especially amazing. Every swell and fill felt like a feather in my heart. They launched into a 20 minute version of the Rowan classic "Land of the Navajo" and by the time he started doing the falsetto calls, I was awash in transcendent tears. Peter Rowan has still got it all and I'm a big baby.Next up I headed up to the Heritage Tent to converse with another of my favorite MerleFest craft exhibitors, bowl maker Larry Kearson of Marion, NC. And not just bowls, but dough bowls. As a boy growing up in NJ, we always had a wooden bowl mounted up on the wall. Occasionally my dad would take it down to kneed some bread dough in. I never thought much about it till I started making bread in earnest in my 20's. Then I wanted it. Desperately. It was a large bowl, about 18"-by-12" and had been hand carved from a piece of black walnut from the family farm in Tennessee. I finally claimed it 10 years ago or so and now it's a regular kitchen tool in our kitchen. Larry hand carves dough bowls from single pieces of wood. Some small and decorative other huge and highly desirable. The Zeke Bowl is one such bough bowl. About two feet long and 18-inches across, it was carved from a single piece of maple from Larry's neighbor's tree. His neighbor's dog, Zeke, laid by the downed tree for days and then growled and whined the day the tree was cut up — Zeke's Bowl. It's a beauty. Dough bowls shouldn't be stained or varnished, and Larry's aren't. You need a dough bowl carved the old way, hit Larry up.From the Heritage Tent I headed over to the Dance Tent to check out Asheville's contribution to Hot Club-style Jazz — Viper's Dream. I guess I'm spoiled by Cincinnati's Faux Frenchman, Viper's Dream didn't quite cut it. Yes, you got to be one hell of a musician to pull off Django tunes, but the sound was shrill and I wasn't digging the fiddle player. Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen is without doubt a Cincinnati treasure.I quickly jumped to the Traditional stage to see Wayne Henderson. With him was a fiddle, frailing banjo and acoustic bass players. Wayne has done three tours with the "Masters of the Six String Guitar" as well as received a National Heritage Award for his instrument building prowess. Wayne is one hell of a fingerpicker, easily one of the best living and funny as hell to boot. Very humble and unassuming. The quartet ran through some Carter Family songs, traditional mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, each played with great dexterity and devotion. What a thrill.Following dinner, I headed up to the Hillside Stage for a set from Donna The Buffalo. A MerleFest favorite, this band has seemingly been on the road for twenty years. I'm a bit baffled how I've never seen them before. Another one of those alternativecountryrootsrockamericana band with some serious jam band leanings, Donna the Buffalo has been a perennial favorite on the tour and festival circuit. They have a loyal following among MerleFest attendees and the tie dye and swirling dancers were out in force tonight. They played a crowd pleasing set, leaving their fans wanting more. Not much more then you can ask for then that.(View Jeff Roberson's photo's from MerleFest 2012 here.)
by Jeff Roberson
North Carolina festival kicks off with Deep Dark Woods and Jubal's Kin
Thursday, April 26: MerleFest Festival GroundsElectrified cats and dogs fell relentlessly across Roanoke Valley as I made my way into to North Carolina. As I turned off I-77, west towards Wilksboro, the skies started to clear and the rain disappeared. The south in the spring.There are really only two stages operating on Thursday — the main Watson Stage where all the big acts play and the small Cabin Stage that is just off the main stage.The Dance Tent and Plaza Open Mic tent will have music today also, but most of the action is on the main festival grounds. The Cabin Stage provides music between acts on the Watson Stage. I know it's not the other way around due to the fact you can hear them sound-checking on the Watson Stage as the smaller stage acts are doing their sets. A note to festival organizers — that sucks.The Watson Stage broke the silence at 3 p.m. sharp with the festival opening act, a five-piece from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, called The Deep Dark Woods. There are a fair number of Canadian acts at MerleFest. I like to think this is due to the Canadian governments dedication to supporting Canadian artists and helping them to further careers. That's a nice touch. Commies. The Deep Dark Woods is an Alternative Country/Roots Rock/Americana band (what's it called these days? Fuck if I know) that has a really together and dark soulful sound somewhat reminiscent of Cincinnati's own The Hiders. Two guitars, keyboard, drums and the best bass player since Paul Cavins of Throneberry hung it up to play drums. Simple, unadorned, muted flats on a P-bass. My goodness, he alone was worth the effort. The songwriting was vital, evocative and never embarrassing and the dual Gretsch hollowbodies through Ampeg amps was a pretty unique and, for me, unheard sound. They weren't breaking any ground, sound-wise, just good songwriting presented exceptionally well and, in these genres, that's pretty much the goal.Jubal's Kin took the Cabin Stage immediately following The Deep Dark Woods. This Florida based brother and sister duo is what I like about finding new music. Gailanne Amundsen and her brother Roger play with passion and commitment. Gailanne tore through some fiddle music to start off the set and then effortlessly moved to the frailing banjo and tore it up, too. Close familial harmonies and incredibly dynamic arrangements on songs that can only get better as they mature as performers. Incredible talent coupled with the right instincts. Unfortunately they started hitting the drums on the main stage for the next act; fortunately for me, Jubal's Kin (pictured below) has three appearances over the MerleFest weekend, so I moved on knowing I'll have better opportunities to see them in less distracting circumstances. That's one of the cool things about MerleFest — a lot of the acts have two, three or four sets over the span of the festival in a variety stages.I wandered over to the Heritage Tent to see what my favorite potter, James Peter 'Pete' McWhirter, has for sale. I met Pete and his wife Kim last year. My sister is also an exhibitor in the Heritage Tent and, along with spewing the sights and sounds for you, I help her out by affording her breaks to have meals, use the bathroom, catch a band, etc. Pete makes the most amazing jugs in a variety of themes. My wife and I are deeply in love with his Chick Jugs — jugs inspired both by his neighbor chickens in Burnsville, NC, and something you might find corn liquor in. He also makes musician jugs — Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops plays one — and outrageous face jugs. Pete is the second generation potter and owner of McWhirter Pottery. His mom ended up in Celo, NC, with an art degree in hand, singing with various folks, met his father, a native of North Georgia who had spent some time marching with MLK, and Mom started McWhirter pottery making everyday useful objects — dinnerware, vases, etc. Pete carries on both the tradition of throwing pots as well as singing with his wife Kim in the western NC band He Said, She Said. Kim will be appearing Sunday at Merle Fest in the Traditional Tent Stage for a program entitled "Women Who Sing Traditional Music."While hanging around Pete's booth, I met Buell, the man who claims to be responsible for MerleFest being more then a one-off event organized 25 years ago to raise money for a horticulture project at Wilkes Community College. Buell was running the video for the first event. They were using the NC-PBS truck with a Betacam machine that happened to have four XLR ins. While standing behind the camera near the sound board, the engineer asked him if he would like an audio board feed into his Betacam machine. Using this video along with some footage from the local TV station and more audio from a local radio station, he weaved together a video of the first event and sold Wilkes Community College on its production. This video sold over 5000 copies and created a demand that enabled the next MerleFest. I heard some great 1988 MerleFest stories from both Buell and Pete (Pete was at the first one also) and got directions to get my free "I Love John Hartford" button. Who doesn't love John Hartford?Up later this eve on the big stage is Vince Gill. I suppose he's pretty good. I'll be heading to the Dance Tent to catch Blind Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. I saw this Asheville, NC, based band last year at the recommendation of the Crossville, Tn. Huminaires drummer Joshua Hall and they were pretty damn good. Right now, it's time to feed the beast. More on Blind Chocolate in the morning.(Words and photos by Jeff Roberson)