Down from the Mountain — Merlefest 2008

by | Apr 27, 2008

We’re just back from our first Merlefest and there’s much to share.


Let’s begin with the bands we were able to see perform.

Levon Helm Band
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby
Hot Buttered Rum
Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven
Donna the Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale and Tim O’Brien

The Avett Brothers
Peter Rowan + Tony Rice
Sam Bush Band
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Donna the Buffalo
The Infamous Stringdusters with Tim O’Brien
Ralph Stanley & Clinch Mountain Boys

What a lineup. Donna the Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale and Tim O’Brien on the Hillside Stage on Saturday was the best set of the bunch. But seeing Ollabelle for the first time was a treat. Ollabelle, featuring Amy Helm, played the Cabin Stage just prior to her father Levon Helm’s set. The music coming from this “tweener” stage was special, and not just because Ollabelle played “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace.” This is a band to learn much more about.

I also enjoyed seeing Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven (from David Grisman Quintet). This quintet-for-the-day pushed bluegrass into an experimental place and I like when that happens. It’s interesting to note that Brown runs Compass Records in Nashville, which ain’t no big thang for a Harvard- and UCLA Business School-educated banjo picker.

Ricky Skaggs with Bruce Hornsby was also excellent. In fact, I’m buying the album they recorded together now.

Levon Helm opened up his headling Saturday night set with “Ophelia,” and right there, the price of admission was pretty much covered. He had a lot of energy and attacked his kit, putting some rock and roll on the plates of the traditionalists still gathered (many scooted out after Ricky Skaggs).

Merlefest is a great time in a beautiful foothills setting, but I’d be negligent in my duties if I failed to mention there is no beer, wine or booze available inside the festival grounds (and I never smelled even the faintest whiff of pot). It’s a sit down affair popular with lots of middle aged church going folk. You might say there’s the Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson faction of traditional music lovers and then there’s a new school element, on stage and in the audience. (I know some people were shaking their heads at The Avett Brothers, but hey, they play acoustic instruments.) At any rate, everyone seems to get along fine but it’s not an equal mix of hula hooping acoustic freaks and traditionalists. The old school has numbers at Merlefest.