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MerleFest Day 2, Part 2: Friday night with New Grass, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 28, 2012

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Friday night at MerleFest pointed to the one thing people were talking about all day - would there be a reunion of New Grass Revival on the Watson stage? The elements were all in place, with Bela Fleck and the original Flecktones, John Cowan, and Sam Bush all appearing within hours of each other in separate sets. Before that possibility, however, there was plenty of other great music to hear.

The evenings at MerleFest narrow the focus down to the main Watson stage and the side Cabin stage, and this is where the major acts of the weekend converge. The early evening slot was occupied by a trio of greats, John Cowan (of New Grass Revival fame), songwriter Darrell Scott and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers.

With Cowan serving as the Doobies' bass player for a few tours, one would expect to hear some of that band's classics in the set and they did not disappoint. Black Water showed up, as did a set-closing jam on Long Train Running, both aided considerably by the backing band surrounding the trio and highlighted by the presence of fiddler and tenor singer Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett, Works Progress Administration). Cowan is still in remarkable voice, but the material didn't give him too many opportunities to truly soar as he's capable of doing.

Scott's contributions to the set were the most warmly received by the audience, including a rendition of It's A Great Day to be Alive, recorded and charted by Travis Tritt a while back.

Fleck's set was a journey into the jazzy, funky world of the Flecktones for the most part, with original keyboard player Howard Levy contributing some dazzling piano parts to many of the numbers. The most touching part of the set, however, was the most traditional - Fleck sat alone at the center of the stage and played an instrumental banjo tribute to the late Earl Scruggs, closing the medley with a line from The Ballad of Jed Clampett, a hit for Flatt & Scruggs.

Bush in many ways is the heart of MerleFest, coming back year after year since the first time, so it fell upon him to host the by then inevitable New Grass Revival reunion. Before that set-closing surprise, however, he ran through a litany of his stylistic detours from up-tempo bluegrass fiddle tunes to a mandolin-driven take on Johnny Clegg's Spirit Is The Journey. His set also included the only actual New Grass Revival song of the night, a version of an instrumental tune from the 1970's New Grass years, Crooked Smile.

After that it was guest star time, with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi coming on stage (they'll be Saturday night's headliners) to jam on amazing versions of the Derek & the Dominoes classic Bell Bottom Blues and the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. Bush then called out Cowan and Fleck and the whole ensemble took on the band's Up On Cripple Creek, with Bush imploring at the yodeling part, "Yodel like Levon did!"

Just when it appeared they were wrapping the song up, it morphed into a version of the traditional bluegrass instrumental Cripple Creek, with Fleck soloing faster and faster alongside Bush's regular picker Scott Vestal, no slouch himself when it comes to the banjo. Once the song finally came to a close, the audience rewarded the performers with a standing ovation.

Los Lobos had the unenviable task of following up that momentous occasion, and they did so with a set loaded with traditional Mexican fare played East L.A. style and peppered with some of their more rock 'n' roll material, including a cover of the Grateful Dead's Bertha that was perfect for the remaining late night crowd.