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MerleFest opening night showcases new and familiar artists

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro N.C., April 28, 2016

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Long running North Carolina roots music festival MerleFest is a family friendly affair that has proven to appeal to different generations. The lineup for Thursday's opening night, then, could be seen as a mirror to that audience as it contained artists ranging from multiple-year veterans of the festival down to first timers.

The first act of the day, Emi Sunshine, was a great example of this. Only 12, she first played the festival 2 years ago at the Little Pickers Tent, the area set aside for children. This time around, she took over the Watson stage with enthusiasm, taking a band, which included her mom and dad, through a set that leaned heavily on classic country and early bluegrass sounds.

Asheville outfit Tellico, though a rookie in its current form, previously played MerleFest as three-fourths of now defunct bluegrassers Dehlia Low. Drawing from their 2015 release "Relics & Roses," the band made the most of its single appearance at this year's festival, turning in a shimmering set of wide-ranging bluegrass and acoustic music.

Mainstays at MerleFest and many other summer festivals, Donna The Buffalo kicked off its string of sets over the next four days with a spirited Watson Stage romp that included cameos from Jim Lauderdale and Peter Rowan. Coming across more like an informal jam session than a calculated, professional approach, the band offered a glimpse of what might be possible when they host this year's Midnight Jam on Saturday night.

The Alison Brown Quartet drew the crowd in with a game of 'Name that Tune,' playing covers featured on their latest release "Song of the Banjo" where the group experiments with banjo-centric versions of classic pop hits. "Dance With Me" from Orleans, Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and the stump-the-audience offering "Feels So Good" (a jazz instrumental hit for Chuck Mangione) presented the Quartet's sometimes classical-leaning style in an entirely new and more accessible light.

Steep Canyon Rangers are a much-lauded bluegrass band from just up the road from here in Asheville, but they have come a long way in the many times they have played MerleFest. Boasting a full-time drummer, an instrument once frowned upon in the genre, the band continues to push the envelope of original modern bluegrass music.

Fiddler Nicky Sanders was the star of this particular night's set, moving from a featured fiddle tune where he played more like Jimi Hendrix than Vassar Clements into more subtle supporting roles on the ballads and a guest spot from guitarist Bryan Sutton. Sanders even managed to pull off a sideways tribute to the late pop star Prince, working the melody of his 80's hit "When Doves Cry" into the intro for another song.

Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith were the warm-up act for headliner John Prine, showing off her considerable vocal control and smoky, almost jazzy voice alongside Smith's exquisite fingerpicking accompaniment. Whitworth alluded to missing the festival in 2015 due to her then pregnancy; she and husband Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers brought the now five-month-old child with them this time around.

Closing out the first night with an artist of the stature of Prine meant there was no shortage of great songs, many of them that turned into audience sing-alongs. Prine's band gave famous tunes such as "Grandpa Was A Carpenter" a musical framework to fit the song, from the latter's near rock 'n' roll rendition to a spare, haunting "Sam Stone." Capping the night off with an encore of "Paradise," Prine related the news of the recent Peabody Co. bankruptcy in a wry aside.

After a bout with throat cancer, Prine's voice is not what it used to be, but he managed to inject feeling and nuance even within his current limitations, proving that it's the songs that matter and which will outlive the singer every time.