Fresh off their showstopping collaboration with Scythian on the Watson Stage Friday, the Irish group We Banjo 3 had a large crowd show up for their morning set on the Americana stage. Mixing traditional fare from Ireland and Scotland such as jigs and fiddle tunes with near rock 'n' roll energy, the band proved to be one of the biggest crowd favorites of the weekend at this and a later afternoon set on the main Watson stage.
Fiddler and vocalist Becky Buller was an early highlight on the Watson stage with a set of beautifully rendered bluegrass. Guitarist Brandon Bostic took over vocals for a rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers tune "Long Chain On," while Buller showcased her own vocal talents on the gorgeous melody of "Home," from her 'Tween Earth and Sky album.
Not all the best shows at MerleFest are on the biggest stages or from the biggest names. The Contenders are a duo that features Wilkes County, N.C. native Josh Day on drums and Vermont singer-songwriter Jay Nash. Their stripped-down acoustic guitar and percussion setup belies the full-bodied sound they can produce, and they quickly won over a curious crowd at the Americana stage with a set that leaned heavily on the classic songwriting style of Nash and some stellar harmony singing.
Likewise, David and Valerie Mayfield were a hit on several different stages Saturday, including the Traditional Tent and the Plaza Stage. The duo are the parents of well-known Americana artists David Mayfield (Of David Mayfield Parade) and Jessica Lee Mayfield (who released a duo album with Seth Avett in 2015), and they talked about their kids several times like the proud parents they are. The parental edition of the Mayfields are a classic bluegrass duo in the Osborne Brothers or Eddie and Martha Adcock style, making great music from just guitar and mandolin along with true mountain soul singing. The Traditional Tent audience was smiling almost as much from the likable duo's comedic husband and wife banter as it was from the music.
Shinyribs, an Austin outfit fronted by Kevin Russell of The Gourds, was a bright spot on the afternoon at the Americana stage and not just for Russell's garish yellow suit. The band, featuring a horn section and backup singers, came across like the greatest hotel lounge show you've never seen; its mixture of R&B swagger, second line funk was brassy, sassy fun. Highlight of the set? The dance-inducing novelty of covering Meghan Trainor's hit "All About That Bass."
Zoe and Cloyd may have been a new name to MerleFest, but the players were not unfamiliar with the festival; fiddler Natalya Zoe Weinstein and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist John Cloyd Miller played previously in the trio Red June, which went on hiatus with the pregnancy and birth of their first child. Where Red June was a more adventurous, atmospheric presence instrumentally, the duo draws from deeper traditional sources and recreates those sounds in a simpler context. Weinstein's fiddle is still a haunting center point to many tunes, and Miller can still write a memorable song. New offering "Running On Empty," however, is not the Jackson Browne classic, but a tale of being tired from having a new baby in the house - proving you can write what you know, even if it's only diaper changes at 3 a.m. The highlight of the duo's set was one with no instrumentation at all, a spiritually charged a capella rendition of a turn of the century hymn by Mary Kidder, "We Shall Sleep, But Not Forever" that can also be found on their 2015 album, "Equinox."
Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys was another group that built their audience as they played multiple sets throughout the weekend; by the time they hit the Americana stage in the late afternoon, they were spilling out to the edges of the surrounding field. The Michigan band plays an exciting brand of not-quite-traditional bluegrass that sits in a sweet spot between old and new, finding bits of both eras and coming up with something unique. Lindsay Lou is an almost jazzy vocalist, and the players around her switch off on instruments and lead vocals like it's a game of musical chairs throughout the set. Notably, no matter what arrangement the players were in the musicianship never faltered.
Everything during the day on Saturday at MerleFest tends to take a backseat to the popular Hillside Album Hour, which features roots band The Waybacks performing an entire classic album with many special guests. The album in question is a closely guarded secret up to the time of the set, so the anticipation builds until the group's first chords give it away. This year's Album Hour featured guest vocalist Nikki Bluhm along with other artists appearing throughout the weekend from John Oates to Lindsay Lou, the Kruger Brothers, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale and more. The album chosen was Eagles' "Greatest Hits," which meant not only a nice tribute to the late Glenn Frey, but also a batch of songs everyone in the crowd knew and sang along with. Oates provided an early highlight with his lead vocal on "Witchy Woman," while Bluhm was solidly soulful throughout the set.
The evening Watson Stage offerings for Saturday were less exciting but still solid, as 29-year MerleFest veteran Sam Bush brought his Sam Bush Band back for another round; Scott Vestal on banjo remains a highlight of this particular group or any group he plays in.
After a short set from Oates, which revealed his solo catalog of Americana and blues-based acoustic music to be an enjoyable aside to his main Hall & Oates gig (including a nicely done version of that mega-platinum group's "You Make My Dreams Come True"), The Dave Rawlings Machine endured one of those occasional MerleFest downpours to produce a solid set of songs drawn mainly from their most recent album, "Nashville Obsolete." Those among the audience who chose to ride out the rain got to hear his bandmate Gillian Welch sing a few songs as well. It was a fitting closing set, with the group drawing its own new sounds from classic traditional forms just as the rest of the lineup had been doing throughout the day.