Avett Brothers close out Merlefest with Doc Watson tribute

  • Posted: Sunday, May 5, 2013 12:01 a.m.
The Avett Brother perform during the final day of Merlefest.
The Avett Brother perform during the final day of Merlefest.

WILKESBORO – When the Avett Brothers took the stage last Sunday afternoon to close Merlefest, the four-day music festival at Wilkes Community College, rain had already made a soggy mess of much of the grounds. People cocooned in garbage bags eyed with envy those clad in Goretex.

But the rain was forgotten when the Avetts launched into a performance that was part wild rumpus and part heartfelt serenade. Almost everybody happily stuck it out until the last note was played. The final few songs were a tribute to Doc Watson, whose spirit was keenly felt in the first Merlefest without his physical presence.

A day earlier, Scott and Seth Avett and bandmate Bob Crawford performed and spoke in the more intimate setting of a small college auditorium. It was a relaxed session, full of brotherly banter, including Seth ribbing Scott about playing wrong notes.

They played a few acoustic songs, including one so new Seth still referred to a notebook to sing the lyrics. It was so melancholy and sweet that I didn’t want it to end.

Lots of great tidbits were revealed, including the following:

• Seth wanted to write songs about chickens but got “shot down” by Scott.

• Scott didn’t care about musicianship when he first started performing. “All I wanted to do was get on the stage and move,” he said.

• Although Scott said he was strongly influenced by the music of Townes Van Zandt, it took a while for him to listen to it because he “didn’t like the sound of his name.”

• Seth was influenced by both Nirvana and Doc Watson.

• “The Shine” originally had the F-word in the chorus. They decided to take it out because, Scott said, it would have limited the audience for the song.

• Scott and Bob had been planning to go to graduate school in 2003 unless they got accepted to Merlefest. They got Merlefest – and it was a pivotal point in their career.

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Of course there was a lot more to this year’s Merlefest than the Avett Brothers. The four-day festival, launched in 1988, featured 90 acts performing on 14 different stages. Attendance was around 76,000, according to organizers, matching last year’s numbers despite the less-than-sunny skies.

For such a large event, a small-town sensibility prevails, thanks in part to unfailingly friendly volunteers and staff. Since Wilkes Community College sits at the bottom of a bowl, getting back up the steep hill can be challenging if you’re lugging a chair and a backpack. On two separate occasions, somebody connected with the festival offered me a ride up the hill, and then went the extra mile – well, half mile, anyway – by driving me off festival grounds to the house of my wonderful friend Kelly who let me stay with her.

During the two and a half days I was there, I met folks from all over, including Roy Greenberg, a Long Island lawyer who was attending for the sixth time. Given that folks like Roy travel so far for Merlefest, it’s surprising that so many people in Salisbury haven’t ever made it, even though it’s an easy drive of less than and hour and a half.

Perhaps it’s because they assume the music is going to be old-school bluegrass. There’s definitely plenty to please traditionalists, but those looking for something a little hipper will find that as well. One band bringing the edge this year was Delta Rae, a Durham-based group with a big rock sound that had people talking.

The Black Lilies out of Knoxville also generated buzz, as did the charming trio Red Molly, who sang a beautiful version of “Your Lone Journey,” a song co-written by Doc and RosaLee Watson.

There were plenty of well-known acts as well, including the Charlie Daniels Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Michael Martin Murphey, a first-time performer who so endeared himself to audience and staff alike –not only for his music but for being unfailingly accommodating and friendly – that he’s already been invited back.

Bringing a decidedly retro vibe to Sunday was deliciously eccentric Pokey LaFarge, who has performed in Salisbury several times. Audiences grooved to the infectious “Garbageman Blues” (“Stick out your can; shake it for the garbage man”).

One highlight for me was the Kruger Brothers version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” performed during the Appalachian concerto set that featured members of the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra. Another was the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers from Brevard, who were a treat even without sometime partner Steve Martin. (This summer the Rangers will be touring with Martin and Edie Brickell.)

One of Merlefest’s most cherished traditions is Saturday’s Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks. Each year, the San Francisco band selects a classic rock album and performs it in its entirety, with some help from other Merlefest artists. This year, the album was Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Before the Flood,” which seemed appropriate given the steady downpour that followed.

I was proud to find Salisbury well represented in the form of 20-year-old Alex Edwards (of the Edwards Family), who won second place in the banjo contest.

Besides the music, there were all the other diversions people have come to expect, from the always-delectable “Boy Scout chicken” to the Little Pickers area for kids. Fans could meet their favorite artists at the autograph tent.

The subtext of this year’s festival was always the late Doc Watson and his wife Rosalee. The Watson stage featured empty chairs reserved for the couple, and most of the performers’ sets paid homage to the bluegrass legend. It wasn’t until I got home that I had the time to take in the whole program (a work of art in itself), which contained many personal reflections about Watson. After reading those, I had a much clearer picture of why the man was so beloved.

If you haven’t been to Merlefest, I hope you’ll consider checking it out next year. Dates are April 24-27.

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