Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Merlefest, Part 6, Album Hour, The Waybacks with Joan Osborne

We started hearing about "Album Hour" before arriving at Merlefest. People said things like "It's so cool, they play an entire album from start to finish." and "Get a spot early, it fills up quickly".

Waiting at the Hillside Stage for "Hillside Album Hour" to begin.
By the time they started, the hill next to me was completely filled in, hipbone to hipbone.

The event is really called "Hillside Album Hour". Each year The Waybacks choose an iconic album to play from start to finish.  The chosen album is a closely guarded secret until they start playing. This year, they gave some clues, the main clue being that it was an album made in America. I did hear the guy sitting next to me mention the album of choice as people were guessing, but really, nobody knew. In past years they had done Zeppelin II, The Beatles' Abbey Road, and The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. This year, with Joan Osborne and her gorgeous voice joining them, they did The Allman Brothers Band, Eat a Peach.

It was really pretty funny. We were all sitting around guessing these albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller (with Joan Osborne?) and Springsteen's Born in the USA, expecting that when they played the first few chords it would be crystal clear what it was.  After the first track much of the crowd was still looking at their neighbor for an answer. A typical exchange was "Quizzical look" answered by a mouthed "The Allman Brothers, Eat a Peach" "Ahhhh, Ok". Rachel and I checked Twitter. James Nash, lead singer and guitarist of The Waybacks, after the first instrumental track, said "That's how it starts" or something very similar.

There appeared to be an expectation that Album Hour should be almost a sing-along, familiar song after familiar song. The Allman Brothers' most well known songs are not on Eat a Peach. I had heard a couple of the songs but my friend, Rachel, had not. People started leaving after the third or track or so and they probably lost about 15% of the crowd. We stuck it out and were rewarded.

The Waybacks are great musicians. Eat a Peach is one of these albums with what feels like ten minute guitar riffs, the kind all we girls sat through in dorm rooms watching our boyfriends play air guitar to.  Some of those guys were there in the audience and you could see them using all their willpower to keep from breaking into air guitar. The Waybacks executed the instrumental stretches with such panache that I only rolled my eyes once. Joan Osborne definately rocked the vocals.

In the end, the cherry on top was "Whipping Post", a song not actually on Eat a Peach. Great song. Here's the video.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Joe Nichols and Walker Hayes at Allure, Greensboro, NC

On May 27th, three girlfriends and I drove to downtown Greensboro to see Joe Nichols for my birthday. If you were there you may have spotted me. I wore my Joe Nichols "Gimme that Girl" T-shirt and, reluctantly, a foam "Happy Birthday" cowboy hat with candles glued around the brim.

The Country Kibitzer at Rivas Trattoria, before the show.
The rollicking laughter began soon after we hit the highway and one friend, while looking at one of Joe Nichol's Roper ads, suggested that we club him on the head with an umbrella and haul him back to the hotel in, as my Dad calls it, the "six body trunk" of my Mercury Grand Marquis. By the time we walked into Allure after polishing off two bottles of wine with our delicious dinner at Rivas Trattoria, we probably looked and sounded like something out of a reality show. The Real Housewives of Raleigh, Episode: They Don't Get Out Much.

On our way, already looking like trouble.
Allure is a smaller venue than I expected, the interior rather like a posh shoebox with red lighting. We arrived in time for the opening act, Walker Hayes, who is talented, funny and sports a very attractive haircut.  I liked the songs "Touching Feet""Pants", and "Mama's Hot". (click for videos) Now that I've watched a video of him performing "Mama's Hot" I realize that Hayes performed last year in the Bluebird Cafe Songwriter's Tent at Country Throwdown. I distinctly remember "Mama's Hot" because the song says, before you marry a woman, check out her mother, and his mother-in-law was at that performance. The reason this was not immediately apparent to me during the show is because the sound in Allure, at least  right in front of the stage, was so bad I could barely make out some of the vocals.  Walker Hayes announced that Rodney Atkins is going to be recording one of his songs, although I have forgotten which one he didn't say it was. We'll figure it out when it Atkins gets it out there. Congratulations to Walker Hayes.
Walker Hayes and I after his set. He said that if he had known,
he would have sung Happy Birthday. Oh well. Guess I should have
worn the darn hat during his set.
Joe Nichols bounded onto the stage and opened his show with "What's a Guy Gotta Do", the same song he opened with last year. He and his whole band looked like they were having a blast performing. He played many of his hits, some fan favorites, his terrific new summer song "Take it Off" (click for video) and almost as many covers.  Unfortunately the sound right in front of the stage was still terrible. I should have moved to see if it was better in back but being close enough to touch the toe of his boot was too luxurious. 

Can't get much closer than this.
As much fun as we had we were also a little disappointed. We were frustrated that he played so many covers. He has a huge number of terrific songs and they just don't get out there. Since it was my birthday, I considered making a sign that said "It's my birthday, so please sing "Old Things New", "This Bed's Too Big", and/or "Believers"" but I'm a lazy country music fan.  I should have made the sign. 
Those are my lil ol' fists. If this photo had sound
there would be some hootin' and hollerin'.

We are pretty sure that the beautiful blond standing to the side of the stage, watching the show and scanning the crowd, was Heather, Joe Nichols' wife. Although I tried to avoid gawking it was interesting to observe her reactions. It must be very strange to see your husband perform in front of a crowd of mostly women who enthusiastically sing along with him, hoot and holler for the silliest of reasons, and in general think he's the cat's meow. When he sang "Let's Get Drunk and Fight" she had a bit of a frown on her face (Nichols credits her for his sobriety) but there were moments when she laughed and seemed to be enjoying the show as well.

When all is said and done, it was a fun event with a great group of fans. I was impressed by the dedication of a couple of guys who drove six hours from D.C. to see the show. The pretty six foot blond who was standing next to me had been waiting patiently at the venue for three hours by the time I took my spot next to her, and she was still nice to me.  After the show I heard a man say "I had no idea who Joe Nichols was, but that was fun!" He's still my favorite.
 Downtown Greensboro is a friendly place after midnight. A policeman on a Segway told us what bar we should go to next. We ran into one of the security guys from Allure at that bar who helped us avoid turning the night into "The Real Housewives of Raleigh: The Hangover III". All four of us managed to make it back to Raleigh the next day terribly sleep deprived, but with most of our belongings and nothing but our overnight bags in the trunk of the Grand Marquis. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Merlefest, Part 5, Harper and Midwest Kind

There were a few bands at Merlefest that I heard for the first time, but I only fell head over heels for one, Harper and Midwest Kind.  I'm not sure if I'm supposed to refer to Harper and Midwest Kind as "them" or "him" because it does appear that Harper, the lead singer, is the beef in this dish. From the biography on his website, it's really all about Harper, his unique vision and toolbox of skills.

Rachel and I first heard Harper and Midwest Kind while we were having lunch in the food vendors' tent next to the main stage. We noticed that whoever was on stage sounded great. Harper and Midwest Kind have a funky bluesy sound that includes the didgeridoo and harmonica.  Harper sports subtle charisma and their music is fresh and energetic. We made a point of going to see them on a different stage later in the afternoon so we could give them our full attention.  Without a plate of rice and beans to distract me, I confirmed that Harper and Midwest Kind are in fact, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

Here are some videos of Harper and Midwest Kind from Merlefest. They don't really do their sound justice, but you can get the idea.

The following is not a video from Merlefest. "Does Anybody Really Care" is a song about the Aboriginal people who taught Harper how to play the didgeridoo.

Here's another non-Merlefest video. I really like this song. There Must Be a Place.

Following their afternoon concert, we passed on the opportunity to attend a workshop where Harper taught the didgeridoo. The masses were becoming aggressive in their pursuit of seating at the Hillside Stage for "Album Hour" (to be covered in another post) and we were afraid to give up our spot. This was a miscalculation on our part. I think we missed out and should have hung out with Harper for another few minutes.

Harper and Midwest Kind are playing at Papa Mojos Roadhouse in Durham on June 25th. I highly recommend seeing them if they come to your area. They put on a great show.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Merlefest, Part 4, Donna the Buffalo

Saturday morning we rolled out of our tent, made come coffee on the camp stove with my new and very posh peculator, and headed to the festival to catch the folky and eclectic Americana of Donna the Buffalo. Donna was one of the few bands I had heard of when I looked at the Merlefest lineup and I was looking forward to seeing them. They've been just on the edge of my radar screen for a while now, every once in a while appearing in a Pandora mix. I've always had the reaction of "Who is that? They're good!" I like Tara Nevin's voice and really like many of their lyrics. The song I most enjoyed on Saturday morning is the one they closed the show with, "No Place Like the Right Time", but I couldn't find a clear video of them performing it.

Donna the Buffalo were in the dance tent that night as well, so they began and ended my day. At one point during the performance they made much ado about someone coming on stage to perform with them but I couldn't see that side of the stage from where I was standing and had no idea who it was until until I found the following video. I was very disappointed that we had missed the Zac Brown Band on Thursday night. Friday, I could have sworn that I saw him walking around with his cap pulled down low but didn't image that he was hanging around on Saturday night. Apparently he was, and I still got to hear him.

Here is a link to a full Donna the Buffalo concert. I think it's pretty cool that they gave permission for someone put a full concert online. It actually has decent sound. Put in on while doing paperwork.

And here's the official video of their song "Locket and Key". I don't remember if they sang this song that morning but it's very pretty.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Merlefest, Part 3, Scythian and the Dance Tent

If you read my previous post, I said that dancing during performances is not part of the culture of Merlefest. This does not hold true for the Dance Tent.

After the Doobie Brothers finished their final encore we walked to the Dance Tent where it sounded like a riot was taking place. At least 1000 people were crammed into a tent and jumping up and down to a band called Scythian. Scythian seems to be broadly categorized as Celtic Rock but with many other influences, Eastern European and Gypsy for example. My favorite song was "Cubicles and Tylenol" (click for video) that starts out like a Klezmer song.

Scythian in the Dance Tent is really best described by the following videos. The first video was produced by the band. The second is taken by someone in the audience while they were doing an 80s mix. Remember when watching that most of these people are completely sober.

We have to thank the big group of students in the front for setting the pace of the dancing. My thighs hurt for days from jumping. Saturday night Donna the Buffalo was in the Dance Tent. They were fun but it was nothing like dancing with Scythian.

Scythian's "American Shanty" was the only CD I purchased for myself at the show. In all fairness I would have also bought a Harper and Midwest Kind CD, but they were sold out. (Next post will talk about Harper and Midwest Kind).

Friday, May 6, 2011

Merlefest, Part 2, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Doobie Brothers

We arrived in Wilkesboro around 4:30PM on Friday. We pitched out tent, got some grub from the Firemen's concessions at Sewerfest, and jumped on an old school bus to be shuttled to Merlefest.

As Merlefest newbies, we soon discovered our first mistake. We arrived at the main stage, and realized that we should have brought chairs rather than a blanket. We found a good spot but the field is not sloped. 95% of the audience is sitting in chairs. It is impossible to see the stage when sitting on the ground. "It will be OK" I said. "Everyone will be up and dancing during the Doobie Brothers." (Remember that quote.)

The Emmitt-Nershi Band started playing soon after we arrived. Apparently anyone who follows Bluegrass knows who Emmitt and Nershi are, but I'll admit that I had never heard of them. They are from two very well known bands, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident. Emmitt-Nershi were excellent and a good band to set the tone for Rachel and my next two days at Merlefest. My note from their performance says "I love the way a Bluegrass song can seemingly ramble on".

This is a video I found on YouTube from of the Emmitt-Nershi Band performing "Down in the Hollow" at Merlefest this year.

Finally the Doobie Brothers came on, so everyone stood up to dance. You have to dance around to the Doobie Brothers. Don't you? Apparently not. Dancing does not appear to be part of the culture of Merlefest. As the evening gets chilly folks huddle down under blankets in their woolly hats and fleece blankets. I love the Doobie Brothers but that was the most uncomfortable first half of a concert I've endured. Nobody stood up. In order to see and not block the view of the bundled being behind us we kneeled and shifted our weight so as not to do permanent damage to our 40 or so year old knees

The Doobie Brothers sounded fabulous. They played all of their old hits plus a few songs from their new album. Their first release from the album "World Gone Crazy" is called Nobody (click for video). It sounds like another Doobie Brothers song and doesn't knock my socks off, but the official video has some ancient and entertaining footage of them. The new song I really like it called "Far From Home" (click for video). It's just a quiet and sweet song.

This video from YouTube is what the concert looked like to me, kneeling way in the back.

Finally I'd had enough of the kneeling and decided that I don't give a hoot about obstructing the view of the huddled masses. "Blackwater" was the straw that broke the camel's back. I jumped up, sang my heart out, and danced around for the rest of the concert. The Doobie Brothers are one of those bands that have so many great songs, they do one encore and you say, "That must be it, they've sung it all." and they pull another hit out of the archive.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Merlefest, Part 1, Sewerfest

I had never heard of Merlefest until my friend Rachel asked me to go. Merlefest is a four day music festival that takes place on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro N.C. It focuses on Bluegrass, Folk, Roots, and Americana and is a fundraiser for the college.

Rachel wanted to attend because she is a huge Lyle Lovett fan. Lovett played on Saturday. We noticed that the Doobie Brothers were playing on Friday night and as I love the Doobie Brothers, we bought tickets for Friday as well. We bought tickets for both days before we found out that there really aren't any hotels with availability nearby, so we decided to camp. I am a camper. Rachel is not. She was putting all her trust in me.

After looking at our camping options on the Merlefest website, the one that caught my attention was called "Sewerfest" as it's located on the property of the Wilkesboro wastewater treatment plant. It is run by the Wilkesboro Fire Dept. as a fundraiser. They said they have plenty of hot water and don't stink. I read some reviews that raved about Sewerfest, so I booked a campsite.

The view from our campsite. It felt very private.

At Sewerfest there is a crowded area of campsites near the plant with it's large brown lagoon and the office, and then there are some remote sites up on a hill above it all. We had one of these remote sites. The benefit of being a bit farther out is that Sewerfest is a festival in and of itself. There are crowds of banjo, mandolin and guitar players picking away into the early hours of the morning. (click to watch video) We stayed up on Friday night past 2am in an empty garage listening to a bunch of pickers jam. On Saturday night we could faintly hear the party going on late into the night but we turned in early, around midnight. We were pooped.

The negative is the bathroom facilities. You would think that being a wastewater treatment plant, this is the one thing they'd have down pat, but alas. They have two bath houses in the main camping area and they were dirty. I am pretty sure that the bathrooms and showers were not cleaned every day, if at all, and one of the toilets was clogged. Nobody fixed it while we were there. Out in the remote camping areas there are portapotties that were OK, but they also got pretty gross by the end of our stay. When we arrived and realized that we only had portapotties near our campsite I feared Rachel would become despondent, but she handled it all like a trooper.

The portapotties nearest to our campsite.

When it's all said and done, I'd consider staying at Sewerfest again. Besides the fact that whenever we told someone we were staying at Sewerfest we got a nod of respect, they had convenient shuttles to and from the concert and we didn't need to cook at our campsite. The firemen sold very good food.  If next time we are friendlier at the late night jams, we'll probably have a great time there.

Plus, I got some of the best sleep I've ever had camping. The roar of the fountain in the middle of the large brown lagoon drowns out the crunch of leaves from a passing critter or the hoot of an owl. Only those pesky early morning birds were loud enough to wake me up.

Stay tuned for articles about the concert itself.