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Old Crow, Williams get head start

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 25, 2014

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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The late night Midnight Jam may not happen until Saturday night at MerleFest, but the headliners on Friday evening got a head start on the jamming. Old Crow Medicine Show and Keller Williams & the Traveling McCourys each approach acoustic and roots music from interesting, different directions, and that fierce individuality was on full display in each of their sets.

Old Crow Medicine Show is tied in to Doc Watson and MerleFest from its beginnings, but they are such a big-time act now that the only way they could come back was to hit the Watson stage running, which they did with "Unshackled," a call to the crowd of sorts to let their worries and troubles go, which they did for the next 90 minutes or so as the band ripped through booming renditions of twang-filled tunes such as "Alabama High-Test" and more songs about substances one isn't supposed to have at this family-friendly festival.

There were several real treats in the band's set, including a new song tribute to Watson and another tune from the same well as their big hit "Wagon Wheel," the new Dylan co-write "Sweet Amarillo," which apparently comes from the same "Rock Me Mama" era as the former song. A fast waltz with some appropriately sugary accordion fills, there is enough Dylan left in it one can hear Bob's voice if you listen close enough.

Williams, like Alan Jackson on Thursday, brought some extra ammunition on stage via the Traveling McCourys - Ronnie and Rob McCoury along with Jason Carter, all from the Del McCoury Band. Williams knew how to play off them and get the most bang for his buck, however. Ronnie's mandolin fretwork in particular was fast and furious on more than one occasion in the set that was top-loaded with Williams' trademark jazzy acoustic noodling.

Williams mixed it up enough to keep things interesting, with a nice vocal turn from Ronnie McCoury on "Graveyard Shift," a song the McCoury Band had recorded with Steve Earle, and he saved his gimmicky covers, including the disco nugget "Hot Stuff" and Foster the People's hit "Pumped Up Kicks" for the later portion of the set.

Williams summed it up on stage by saying at one point, "It's a pleasure and an honor to be with you here at MerleFest tonight." He'll be back on Saturday playing a mid-day set with his other favorite collaborators the Keels on the Hillside stage.

Other acts to watch out for on Saturday, the biggest schedule day of MerleFest, include Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Steep Canyon Rangers, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Sam Bush Band, the Steel Wheels, and, of course, the Hillside Album Hour.