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MerleFest Day 3: it's homecoming day

Wilkes Community College, WIlkesboro, N.C., April 25, 2015

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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A wet and overcast day did little to dampen the spirits of the artists or the audience at MerleFest on Saturday; typically the busiest day of the four-day long festival. With home-state heroes The Avett Brothers headlining the Watson Stage, it felt like a homecoming celebration all day long.

Friday may have been the day for new talent to shine, but Saturday had its fair share of MerleFest rookies as well. The Honey Dewdrops, from Baltimore, were the busiest of all of them. Kicking off their day at 9:30 a.m. at the Creekside Stage, they continued with a harmony singing workshop, then a set in the Traditional Tent before capping their evening on the Cabin Stage just before the night's headliners. As if that wasn't a long enough day, the duo also appeared at the Midnight Jam.

As the Honey Dewdrops, husband and wife duo Kagey Parrish and Laura Wortman have a musical and vocal kinship that's one of those unteachable, natural fits. When they pick through the emotional depths of a song such as "Hills of My Home" or the Stephen Foster classic "Hard Times," it is their inextricably intertwined harmonies and sympathetic accompaniment that carries the tunes. Highlights of their multiple sets included "Hold Love," from their new album "Tangled Country" out May 8 and an amusing tune called "I Don't Feel That Young Any More," a lament about being out of touch with the internet and social media generation made more comedic due to the fact it was being sung in the Traditional Tent.

The Steel Wheels were back this year with a new album of their own in tow; the single-mike quartet has a powerful, spiritual bluesy sound steeped in the Virginia hills they call their home. At one point, singer Trent Wagler stopped and thanked the audience, volunteers and everyone else saying that they were so inspired by their first MerleFest appearance a few years ago that they went home and started their own festival, Red Wing Roots, now in its third year.

The main highlight of the daytime hours on Saturdays at MerleFest the past several years has been The Waybacks' Hillside Album Hour, where the band brings in special guests and performs a classic album in its entirety. One of the most popular sets of the festival, in past years, the band has performed "Abbey Road," "Deja Vu" and other favorites. This year's album was Bruce Springsteen's 1980's "Born in the USA", with Joan Osborne as the featured vocalist.

Osborne alone made this a special treat, recasting the macho jingoistic reputation of the album in her own more funky, soulful image. "Born in the USA" was given a slow-burning, simmering vocal intro before the band kicked it into high rock 'n' roll gear; "Darlington County" was interpolated with the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and "Dancing In the Dark" was given an extended introduction via a verse or two of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On."

The highlight came on one of the lesser known cuts, "I'm Goin' Down." Jim Lauderdale came out and performed the song with Osborne in a sultry hot duet that recast the tune into a very funky slow groove and newly sexy way.

The main Watson Stage may have belonged to the Avett Brothers this evening, but before they came out it was time for some classic bluegrass to shine. Peter Rowan brought a full bluegrass band to play songs from throughout his storied career, closing a solid crowd-pleasing set with one of his best known tunes, "Midnight Moonlight."

The Gibson Brothers paid tribute to the great brother duos on their latest album "Brotherhood," and they drew from that for their Watson Stage set along with their previous output, dropping in a classic bluegrass tune or two along the way. The brothers Gibson have a well-worn, but comfortably familiar sound, proof that the traditional side of the genre still has a following and a relevancy today.

The big Saturday crowd was there to hear North Carolina's favorite sons The Avett Brothers, however. The now seven-piece band has expanded not only their membership, but their popularity even since the group's 2013 MerleFest appearance, releasing "Magpie & the Dandelion" in the interim.

The Avett Brothers sets are full-bore rock 'n' roll experiences these days, with many moments not too far from a Springsteen-esque fervor. Despite the much bigger sound they project, the brothers are still at their best when they pare it down as they did on this particular evening with fan favorites "Murder in the City" and "Swept Away."

There were obvious nods to the locale in the otherwise fairly standard Avett Brothers set. Rowan appeared on stage to sing with them, tying the old and the new generation together in a mutual admiration society of sorts. The brothers gave a nod to the gospel roots of the region with a stunning a capella "In the Garden" and gave tribute to Doc Watson himself with a version of "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues."

As if the full slate during the day and evening were not enough, the Midnight Jam at the Walker Center theater carried on until the late hours of the night. Hosted by The Steel Wheels this time around, it featured multi-artist jams with members of The Gibson Brothers, Ragbirds, Moore Brothers, Front Country, Mipso, Jim Lauderdale, Willie Watson, Mandolin Orange, Honey Dewdrops, Rowan and more playing jam session favorites from "Up on Cripple Creek" to an all-hands-on-stage finale of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner."

Sunday morning will come early for those who stayed up half the night; those early birds will get to see the Nashville Bluegrass Band, David Mayfield Parade, the Jim Avett Gospel Hour, and more. Dwight Yoakam and Robert Earl Keen highlight the Watson Stage on the final day of the festival.