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And they're off at MerleFest

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 24, 2014

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Thursdays at MerleFest are usually a little less hectic, a bit more laid back than the rest of the jam-packed music weekend to follow; it's as if one needs to ease into consuming all these sounds slowly.

Counter to that was the Watson stage programming for the opening day of the 26th year of the annual North Carolina festival founded to honor the memory of Merle Watson, son of festival patriarch Doc Watson-who passed away himself prior to last year's event.

No, this time around it was going to be high-energy from the start, apparently. Early festival goers were able to catch a nice roots-rock set from John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner Josh Farrow, whose band was in the alt.-country pocket before breaking out a few funkier numbers that served as a precursor to the upbeat fare later in the day.

Bluegrass is always a big part of any MerleFest, and Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice kicked off the grassy side of things with a spirited set of solid traditional bluegrass and some classic harmony singing. Sisk noted it had been 15 years since his last MerleFest appearance, and that was with a different group.

Highlights of Sisk's set included a take on the Mike Nesmith tune "What Am I Doing Hanging Round" that was made popular in bluegrass circles via the Seldom Scene, and the energetic antics of bassist Jason Tomlin, who Sisk referred to at one point as the band's 'bobblehead' due to the way he moved around and bobbed his head while performing.

The Duhks are another group with previous MerleFest experience that hasn't been back in a while, but that is more due to their membership changes and a hiatus. They're back this year with a new album available at the festival that doesn't officially release until June, and their main stage return was a rhythmic, eclectic joy. One of the songs from the new album, Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Beyond the Blue," was rendered in a gorgeous, floating version as spiritual as the lyrics.

The Celtic/Baltic rock act Scythian have been festival highlights for several years now, and in their 10th year as a band, they're confident and competent at the high energy mish-mash of styles they play. Just when the crowd seemed to be settling into mid-afternoon doldrums, the band asked the audience to stand and dance with them. After complying and participating in large part, the audience was informed by one band member "We were just checking for a pulse."

On Thursdays, the Cabin stage is typically the spot for local color and tributes, but one regional act in particular stood out, The John Stickley Trio. Stickley, along with a fiddle player and a drummer, laid out a quick, jaw-dropping set of fast flatpicking and fiddle interplay.

The peak of the night came early - with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Drawing from the black banjo tradition and adding their own brand of energy, the group charmed the crowd with extra touches including a clogger/dancer on a foot board and several guest spots from original band member Justin Robinson.

Hubby Jenkins, who moved around from guitar to banjo to bones, said of the latter percussion devices, "These are the coolest instrument made by man," then proceeded to start to give their history starting with cavemen before catching himself, stopping and finishing with "Thank you very much" before getting into a who's-faster bones battle with fellow Chocolate Drop Rowan Corbett.

Rhiannon Giddens showcased a show-stopping vocal ability on a tune she introduced as Gaelic 'mouth music' on which she played the part of everything but percussion with her voice - Jenkins pounded on a giant bass drum behind her as she wailed, singing the entire song in the Gaeilic tongue.

Perhaps with a knowing wink to the act scheduled to follow them this night (Holly Williams), they dropped a Hank Williams, Sr. tune into their set ("Please Don't Let Me Love You") and closed their portion of the evening with a pair of tunes from the band's first album, using Robinson's presence to reach back even for the 'revenge tune' R&B cover "Hit Em Up Style."

Williams is the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr., and the granddaughter of Hank, Sr., and her music tends to skip dad's bluster in favor of the fatalism and simplicity of grandpa. Her first appearance at MerleFest was this short set on the Cabin stage, a bit of a outlier to the energetic sets around her, but the power of songs such as "Waiting on June" from her 2013 album "The Highway" still quieted the crowd. Husband Chris Coleman, of the rock band Kings of Leon, was her acoustic lead guitarist in the small trio she brought along.

Headliner Alan Jackson was making his debut at MerleFest as well and he also brought along a pretty good band - world class bluegrass pickers including fiddler Tim Couch, Rob Ickes on Dobro, Ronnie Bowman on backing vocals and Sierra Hull on mandolin.

Despite all the firepower, the results were serviceable at best, with plenty of great picking and soloing between the various band members, but not much excitement overall. Jackson seemed pleased, remarking several times that there was "Some good picking up here on stage," but aside from a nice rendition of John Anderson's "Wild and Blue" and the pretty bluegrass of "Blue Ridge Song," nothing really stood out from the rest.

Jackson seemed to acknowledge that at one point even though he put together this bluegrass album, he wasn't a 'real' bluegrass singer. "I wasn't trying to pretend I was some kind of bluegrass singer," he admitted from the stage at one point. "I just wanted to pay tribute." Though it was a humble thought, and Jackson was talkative and personable throughout, one kind of missed hearing at least one or two of his big country hits.

As Friday dawned, a hint of rain was in the air, and the forecast, but a full day of music is on tap. Sets to watch for include the Irish band I Draw Slow, the old-time trio South Carolina Broadcasters, Todd Snider, Lonesome River Band and main stage slots later today from Old Crow Medicine Show and Keller Williams and the Travelin' McCourys.