erleFest kicked into high gear on Friday with performances from the likes of Doc Watson, Tara Nevins and Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Americana stage hosted Asheville, N.C. act The Honeycutters early in the morning, almost too early for their somewhat dark material. They're aware of the tenor of their material, of course - at one point they mentioned from the stage that "that last song was about as happy as we get."
Doc Watson appeared early on in the traditional tent flanked by David Holt and T. Michael Coleman, looking frail, but sounding solid as always on the guitar. Despite the early hour, the tent was packed to the edges, with additional people coming in under the tent flaps as the performance continued.
Casey Dreissen began his MerleFest day with a solo fiddle set on the Hillside stage, continuing later in the day with a full band set on the Americana stage.
The Steel Wheels built on the word of mouth that had been growing since their afternoon set Thursday, playing a full set to an equally full lawn in front of the Americana stage. They ran through some traditional gospel such as Working on a Building, after which the lead singer commented, "We're having a little church here on a Friday morning - now we're covered." After playing a funky tune complete with vocal percussion from the bassist, the band wrapped up their set with an unlikely cover of the rock band Cake's Stick Shifts and Safety Belts.
Jonathan Scales and Fourchestra played the main stage at midday to a small but appreciative crowd, Scales' jazzy Medeski, Martin, and Wood-esque take on the usually Caribbean-style steel drum is unusual even for the 'traditional plus' MerleFest. He acknowledged as much from the stage, but said they were all big Bela Fleck and Sam Bush fans, who were play the festival, so they were excited to be included in this year's lineup. At the group's second set of the day over on the Hillside stage, Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten showed up to sit in on a song, so they've apparently got the official seal of approval at least.
Tara Nevins played on Thursday night with her Donna the Buffalo cohorts, but her solo show at the traditional tent on Friday afternoon was as enjoyable, if not more so, for those who caught both. Just as Donna the Buffalo expands the roots-rock category they're usually placed in, Nevins expanded the traditional tent's offerings by bringing along a stage full of friends including a pedal steel player, electric guitarist and drummer.
The set list was drawn from Nevins' excellent solo albums, and the full ensemble closed with the second Levon Helm tribute of the weekend when she dedicated their version of Van Morrison's For the Beauty of Days Gone By to Helm. Nevins recorded the song for her last album at Helm's Woodstock, N.Y. studio, and Helm himself played on the track.
Steep Canyon Rangers took to the Watson stage with a mid-afternoon set that was a little too quiet to reach out to the far end of the field, though they managed to light up the crowd and receive a standing ovation from the reserved seating with a set-closing rendition of Orange Blossom Special.
Still to come tonight: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Bush, and Los Lobos on the Watson stage.