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MerleFest: the new generation arrives

Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, N.C., April 24, 2015

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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Friday at MerleFest is when things really get rolling; it is the first full day of music and this year it seemed the crowds were there early and often, perhaps to get some good tunes in before the forecasted rain hits on Saturday.

The Stray Birds kicked things off down at the cozy Creekside stage, with an entertaining and energetic early morning set. The Pennsylvania-based trio features the smoky voice of Maya De Vitry alongside Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench; all three play multiple instruments that get traded around the stage like a living room jam session. The songs also featured some nicely done three-part harmonies with the members alternating on the lead.

Jesse & Noah Bellamy are in fact part of the Bellamy Brothers lineage, but it doesn't mean they sound much like their famous dad and uncle. Instead, the new generation offered up a pop-rock set with little twang. A string of mid-tempo rockers was broken only by a nicely done cover of another famous brother duo, the Everly Brothers "All I Have To Do Is Dream."

The opening spot on the Watson Stage for Friday also featured a young act in what was becoming a day full of MerleFest debuts and next generation artists. Cherryville, N.C.'s Unspoken Tradition played it fairly straight with their bluegrassy sound, but lyrically they delved into some darker, somber themes such as the hardworking farmer ode "Blood and Bone," which contained some heartfelt lines about "what it means to work until your blood is in the land."

Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys woke up the Americana Stage crowd with their mixture of rockabilly, swing, and rock 'n' roll grooves 1950's style; the early set was more subdued, but when they reappeared at the Dance Tent later in the afternoon, the gloves were off and the crowd was jitterbugging away.

Donna The Buffalo also made several appearances on Friday; after their late night dance tent set on Thursday, they played twice Friday to mark the 20th year they have been featured performers at MerleFest.

The South Carolina Broadcasters have been a favorite of the old-time and traditional crowd the past couple of years at MerleFest. This year, they played only one set, in the Traditional Tent, but it was a good one. New member Andy Edmonds brings both fiddle and banjo talent to the act to support the already excellent Ivy and David Sheppard; her side gig as a WPAQ disc jockey in Mt. Airy, N.C. yielded the group's closing number "We Shall Meet Some Day," an obscure gospel 45 she found and played on her weekly radio show there.

The Ragbirds were another 'next generation' young act that wowed the audience at Creekside and again later at the Americana stage. Their eclectic sound incorporated Cajun, European, and even African influences into what was ultimately a display of simple, affecting songwriting. In what was perhaps the most unusual 'remix' of a familiar classic, the band played a percussion-only version of "I'll Fly Away" set to the rhythm of an African folk tune.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis played a full set to a large Hillside Stage crowd, then another completely different set at the Cabin Stage; their combined repertoire is strong enough, they could have done a third if they wanted to, perhaps. As it was, Robison stilled the Hillside audience with "Travelin' Soldier," Willis pulled out the title track to an early solo album in "Heaven Bound" and the duo sounded great harmonizing on Dave Alvin's classic "Border Radio."

The nighttime lineup on the Watson Stage featured some hit-or-miss moments from familiar names. The Marshall Tucker Band wandered through a sluggish set, which only picked up steam at the end with a rousing sing-along on their classic "Can't You See," while MerleFest mainstay Sam Bush brought his band out for virtually the same set he's played here the last few years minus a special guest or two.

Headliners The North Mississippi All-Stars with Jim Lauderdale saved the evening, however, delivering a sometimes blistering set of guttural blues, honky-tonk country sounds, and rock 'n' roll fervor.

Saturday's forecast may be calling for certain rain, but it is also certain to bring much more great music as The Avett Brothers headline the Watson Stage and Blue Highway, The Steel Wheels, The Gibson Brothers and Peter Rowan perform. Also much-anticipated is the Hillside Album Hour with The Waybacks, where they perform a classic album in its entirety.