MerleFest now has 81,000 or so attending the four-day series – a dwarf compared to the creeping monster in New Orleans – that nevertheless is overwhelming in terms of infrastructure and the effort to main focus during a set. Somebody, usually a lot of somebodies, walks or stumbles in front of you, steps on your toes during a ballad, starts yakking on their phone during a fiddle break, or if it’s one of the stages that doesn’t have folding chairs, someone invariably dumps gear at your feet as if you were not even there.
Ah, human nature.
MerleFest now has 13 stages in operation, and it’s my conclusion one can still have the “profound” musical experience on the more isolated and smaller venues. Or very early in the day. The main stage has devolved in my view, and yes, you can still see the BIG NAMES – Alison Krauss, for instances, closes MerleFest today, and it will be an acoustic zoo with tapping feet, swaying old folks in tie-dyed shirts, and plenty of harmony. It will be great, but it will also be one of the few bands we will have seen on the main stage. For us, the “real” MerleFest exists in the satellite stages.
Saturday morning, for instance, we eschewed our breakfast and coffee ritual in nearby Blowing Rock and simply tumbled down to the car and arrived on the festival grounds by 8:45. We set up our folding chairs in a perfect spot in front of the Americana stage, and knocked back a couple of mochas from BlueMoose Coffee – clearly not a rival of Cafe Envie in NOLA (the BEST mocha I’ve had so far in my quest), but rather a distant (as in very distant) soulmate. But the caffeine did help us gradually get in tune while watching a low-key blues set by Michael Roach, who wore a grayish lightweight suit with a snazzy tie and perfect fedora as he performed on acoustic guitar. Roach, one of 13 children from Washington, D.C., was vastly entertaining, which i attribute partly to the coffee, but more so to the sublime coincidence of not many people in attendance and unseasonably cool – if not cold – temperatures.
Red June followed Roach, and this band is our BIG DISCOVERY for 2012 MerleFest: Natalia, a fiddler who trained as a classical violinist, her husband John on mandolin and guitar, and Will on dobro and guitar, have just released their second album, which we listened to in the car on the way back to Boone (and our hotel). They are traditional and yet current. Very compelling. I particularly enjoyed the songs Will wrote and told him so after a stunning set in the Traditional tent later in the day. Red June will be coming to our area on May 12 – a day marked by my scheduled audition for a number of area theatre companies. Maybe somebody will need a pudgy gray-haired guy with the tendency to keep talking in spite of the cues to shut the fuck up.
At any rate, Red June will be giving a free concert that night, and we will be going. The band will be having its album release party on June 15 in Asheville, and we don’t need much of an excuse to go to the mountains so we will be headed up to see them then. I’d guess they are in their mid 20s, possibly leaning toward their 30s. Natalie and John are married, and their relationship certainly adds a noticeable off-stage element. I do know they met in Asheville six years ago and that Red June is in the third year of its existence. And to have played MerleFest in that short span of time bodes well for them.
After Red June, a very young traditional band from Florida – Jubal’s Kin – played the Americana stage. Fiddler/banjo player/guitarist Gailanne Amundsen is 17, wears ankle bracelets and plays in her barefeet. Her brother, Roger, might be on the darker side of 20, sports a beard and a red CONOCO hat, and plays acoustic and electric guitars, while their brother Jeffrey, might be 14 and plays standup bass. They are as eclectic as they are mesmerizing. In the set we saw, Jubal’s Kin was joined on stage by a scraggly, hirsute banjo player/fiddler who I dubbed Itchy Brother. He didn’t add much, except for the moment when Gailanne had a string break on the guitar that she and Roger shared during the set. Itchy Brother tried to yank the string off the guitar, which, of course, didn’t work, and to complete the song they were performing, Gailanne picked up a banjo. She has enormous dark eyes that reflect whimsy and surprise, as well genuine joy in the music that she already knows how to make. To cover Roger’s string replacing activity, Gailanne and Itchy did a fiddle duet which resulted in a friend from the audience joining them on stage to dance, which prompted Jeffrey to start dancing as well. A terrific sequence, totally evolving on the fly – one of those rare moments when everyone involved on stage and off is aware of the problem being solved ... it was sublime.
Roger fixed the guitar in time for the next number, and the band resumed with what I guess they had planned. Hard to say, other than that it was clear they had as good a time as I did. For me, a concert works best when I’m close enough to the stage that it is also theatre – that I’m able to see the performer blush when applause follows an inspired break, or the darting, snake-quick glance that warns a fellow player that the song is about to end. You can’t run from reality on stage; it’s far better to embrace it.
And as always, as has been widely known for centuries: The play’s the thing.
As i used to say about retail, and it certainly holds true for live music, if it weren’t for the people, it would be great.