photos [L-R]: The Merlefest crowd gives the Avett Brothers a standing ovation after their performance on the Austin stage, Scott Avett strums his banjo
After a long day working the Paste booth on vendor row—meeting as many people as we could and getting the word out about the magazine—our four-person Merlefest team is ready for some music.
We power-walk it over to the Austin stage where, nestled cozily against an Appalachian hillside, a few hundred festival-goers are in the midst of getting rocked by North Carolina acoustic trio The Avett Brothers. Blaring steel-string guitar, strummed banjo, plunking upright bass and vibrant, rough-edged harmonies fill the mini-amphitheatre as the band cranks through old-timey songs of heartbreak, woe and adventure on the high seas. Guitarist Seth Avett keeps time, stomping a hi-hat with his foot. They have a hard time staying in tune (and keeping their strings from snapping), but it doesn’t matter much. When the Avetts start singing, something magical happens—the way their voices blend when belting their harmonies is mesmerizing.
Steve Douglas from old Atlanta band The Shiners—a band that used to share bills with folks like Trailer Bride and the Drive-By Truckers—turns to me and says, “There’s a new Redneck Underground.” I can’t argue with him. The Avett Brothers’ reckless rock ’n’ roll approach to traditional folk has a lot in common, spiritually, with the aforementioned bands, even if the sound is different. The Avetts’ dreamy acoustic ballads and revved-up gutterpunk folkgrass conjure visions of some ballsy, demented, hick version of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Seth abandons the hi-hat, opting instead to furiously stomp his foot, clickin’ and clackin’ up a storm on the wooden stage. At the end of the band’s set, it receives a rowdy standing ovation. Pretty impressive. After all, The Avetts are just a little band on a little label, but given their edgy, inspired performance, the response is no surprise.
With the tight scheduling, you don’t get many encores at Merlefest, but the stage manager decides to avert a riot by letting the band come out and play one more. The Avetts rip through “Nothing Short of Thankful,” the catchiest song on their recent studio album Mignonette, and their newly converted fans scream while the trio thrashes about, beating their ragged instruments unmerciful. Of all the newcomers at this festival, this is the band to keep an eye on.
After acoustic Armageddon, it’s over to the Watson stage to chill on the grassy knoll down front. As the crowd waits for The Duhks to perform, the winners of Merlefest’s annual songwriting competition (which in the past has included Gillian Welch) perform their winning compositions. Sam Quinn brought home the award in the bluegrass category, and Zane Williams’ ready-for-Music Row sound landed an award for best country song (more than a little cheesy, but that’s what they dig in Nash Vegas, right?). After they run through their songs, Mike Fenders, winner in the gospel category, plays his impressive “Who’s Gonna Throw That First Stone.”
Merlefest is known for its gospel and bluegrass roots, but much like the Italian cuisine served the previous evening, organizers get a wild hair every so often. The festival usually only strays as far as Scottish, Irish, and Celtic-fused bands, but The Duhks, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, are a bit of a departure.
As the Ulleann pipes and fiddle start the playful “Gene’s Machine,” you think: A hybrid of Irish band The Chieftains and Nickel Creek—nothing new. But as soon as percussionist Scott Senior adds his world beats, it’s clear we’re in for something different.
And if the freshness still wasn’t apparent, lead singer Jessee Havey cements the notion. Taking the stage with a bleach blonde buzz cut and full-sleeve tattoo, she grabs the audience’s curiosity and plays with it. And after the island-flavored “True Religion” and slightly more traditional “Mists of Down Below,” her husky voice and sensual movements have the audience enthralled. The Duhks, in their first appearance at Merlefest, own the stage, but with sincerity.
“Today is a real dream come true,” notes group founder and banjoist Leonard Podolak, who, after a jaunty French Canadian tune, brings out Duhks producer and banjo maestro Béla Fleck. Their dueling plucks during “The Magnolia Set” add credibility to an already intoxicating stage presence.
Unfortunately, light showers begin toward set’s end. Not even an airy, soulful version of Sting’s “Love is the Seventh Wave” can keep the audience’s mind off staying dry. The Duhks, however, have made their presence felt on the current U.S. leg of their world tour and will be consistently flying south for us to enjoy them.
Continuing the newgrass-fusion theme, The Jerry Douglas Band takes the stage around nine, launching into covers of The Allman Brothers’ “Little Martha,” followed by Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” A sizeable portion of the crowd had been scattered by chilly rain, but those staying quickly discover why Douglas is so heavily featured in Alison Krauss & Union Station. His five piece band is talented, especially Mohawk-sporting fiddler Gabe Whitcher and bassist Viktor Krauss. However, Douglas is quick to differentiate himself from his more successful side job.
“In case you didn’t know, these are instrumentals—just thought I’d spring that on ya,’” laughing as he deadpans, “I’ll sing somethin’ in a minute.”
Douglas creates a relaxed, soothing mood, but after half a dozen quickly fingered showcases, his set looses much of its energy—a necessary component given the weather and late evening. Not even the forced inclusion of a lilting electric guitar adds the necessary spice.
For the finale, though, he kicks into high gear inviting Fleck and mandolin legend Sam Bush for a frenzied romp. Like the softly lit trees towering over the stage, these three have long been considered giants of their respective fields and they prove it by plowing through the last couple songs with intensity.
This is what people are waiting (and getting wet) for—rousing, traditional bluegrass performed by the best.