Merlefest 2004 – Day 3 Recap

Music Reviews Merlefest
Merlefest 2004 – Day 3 Recap

After dragging our over-driven bodies to Merlefest early Saturday afternoon, we needed a pick me up and found it in the form of blonde Canadian bombshell Natalie MacMaster. A native of Cape Breton, MacMaster—looking chic in all black—stormed the Watson main stage with a whirlwind of Scottish and Irish inspired tunes.

During “The Kitchen Session,” MacMaster fiddled fast while two dancers entertained the crowd—think Riverdance, but with better music. “It’s starting to warm up,” MacMaster says after she eases into her set. If she considers her first few songs “warm,” then what followed was scorching.

For the finale, she laid her fiddle down, and kicked her way across the stage, throwing in Michael Jackson’s moonwalk just for fun. Then she began tapping her feet, building the beat into a sound that eventually became part of her show-stopping closer. With Celtic flutes, Irish fiddling and multiple high leg kicks, MacMaster wowed the crowd to a standing ovation. All we could mutter was a simple “damn.”

The Nashville Bluegrass Band took the stage in a steady drizzle, but everyone in the audience stayed glued to their seats. For the next hour, unadulterated bluegrass seeped through the pristine Wilkesboro hills. “Let’s play something that has to do with the mountains,” says banjo aficionado and North Carolina native Alan O’Bryant, after a few foot-tapping numbers from the group’s latest album. And, with that, the five-man ensemble broke into “Crossing the Cumberlands.” Even Vince Gill had to have his dose of NBB. The country superstar sat to the left side of the stage for part of the set, while the band shuffled through “Honky Tonk Swing”—a song featuring a solo by bassist Dennis Crouch.

(Natalie MacMaster photos by Cory Albertson, Nashville Bluegrass Band photos by Katie Vesser)

From bluegrass to new grass, the clouds cleared for Nickel Creek at the Hillside Stage. The young San Diego trio—looking country cool—sauntered out with the crowd’s energy level boiling.

The band ran through fan favorites like “When You Come Back Down,” “The Smoothie Song” and “Sweet Afton.” “I hope you know that the people who play here have had a profound effect on music,” says mandolin player and vocalist Chris Thile. “These people are always on top of their game, and we’re not, which is really intimidating.” But Nickel Creek was at the top of its game and the crowd danced and clapped during the infectious bluegrass-laced finale, which included Beck’s “Where It’s At” and the band’s own “The Fox.”

Leading off the trio of all-star acts on the Watson stage, Patty Loveless’ deep humming, coupled with the hard drum beat of “Nothin’ Like The Lonely”—from her new album, On Your Way Home—signaled the arrival of a familiar, soulful twang not found anywhere else in country music. Loveless has been a constant presence in the genre, one of the most solid artists of the last twenty years, and the audience welcomes her as part of its family.

She brings some Nashville class to the party with rhinestone-studded jeans and black-and-white boots so sharp they could double as weapons. Her stage presence is relaxed and playful for “Blame it on Your Heart” and the Rodney Crowell-penned “Lovin’ All Night.” But her vocals shine brighter than the rhinestones on traditional, bluegrass-tinged ballads, her voice sliding on every drawl and yelp. After songs like “The Grandpa That I Know” and her Grammy-nominated single, “On Your Way Home,” the chills running down your back aren’t just from the cool Appalachian evening air.

No, that’s Patty’s fault.

(Nickel Creek portrait and Patty Loveless live photo by Cory Albertson, Nickel Creek live photo by Katie Vesser, Patty Loveless tour-bus photo by Steve LaBate)

Next on the Watson stage, legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs celebrated his 80th birthday with guests Doc Watson and Vince Gill paying tribute. The Paste crew met back up just in time to hear an eerie-yet-beautiful version of “Long Black Veil.” With the sweet-singing Gill on lead vocals, Scruggs played “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which was a treat from these two well-respected musicians. Scruggs is known best for his breakneck instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from Bonnie & Clyde, a tune he and his special guests shared with the hordes of fans who gave them a standing ovation.

Finishing the night of ripe and chiseled Merlefest acts, Gill rollicked through a set ranging from his classics to newer, comical pieces that enthralled onlookers. But Gill, casually dressed in the same attire we’d seen him in earlier in the day—black T-shirt and jeans—sheepishly admits, “I’m a bluegrass-wannabe-country-singer, but decided one day that I wanted to own my own house.” At the start of his career, Gill played with Rosanne Cash, whom he invited onstage to sing a duet on “If It Weren’t For Him.” Gill also paid tribute to Cash’s family and their recent losses with a rousing rendition of “Ring of Fire.”

The melding of styles, the impromptu duets, the shared enjoyment—this trek into bluegrass country hasn’t just been a joining of disparate musical styles; it’s become a family reunion for the artists.

(Earl Scruggs with family & friends – photos by Steve LaBate, Vince Gill photos by Katie Vesser)

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