By David Coulson. April 28, 2018. WILKESBORO, NC — Maybe it was the near-full moon hanging over Wilkesboro Community College or some other magical force. The past, present and future of bluegrass collided on Friday at the 31st annual MerleFest with more stunning performances on Day Two of its four-day run.
COVER IMAGE: Hillside Album Hour at 2018 Merlefest. Photographic image by Flattop Merlefest for 2018 Merlefest
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, very much part of both the past and present of bluegrass traditions, forged a concert for the ages on Saturday night. The unmistakable, adorable chemistry between this married couple, both exquisite banjo players and vocalists, lifted their wonderful set to a destination seldom seen on any concert stage or with any genre of music.
For the future, all you had to do was catch a couple of concerts during the afternoon from Deep Gap wunderkinds, Cane Mill Road, a group that is turning heads in big ways this weekend.
It was another incredible day of music as the festival swung into full swing with all venues in operation.
The bluegrass music this couple unleashed wasn’t funny. It was just plain marvelous.
Promoting their latest collaborative album, “Echo in the Valley,” Fleck and Washburn — true bluegrass stars — gave a hint of what was to come by holding hands on the Watson stage before they played. That touching moment, with Washburn eight-months pregnant with the couple’s second child, foreshadowed the music that followed.
It was the final concert of a tour for the duo. Washburn is expected to deliver in about three weeks, but that didn’t slow down this amazing performer nor her uber-talented husband.
“We’re going to hole up and wait for the event after tonight,” Fleck said on Saturday during an impromptu interview, after he had scouted Cane Mill Road.
With the pregnancy as a backdrop, there was plenty of humor exchanged throughout their set.
None of the comedy was funnier than an exchange about how they met.
The pair said that their mutual friend and musical counterpart Sam Bush had suggested they both try online dating as a cure for their mutual loneliness. They were both directed to sign up for BanjoMingle.com.
They alleged that a case of Chinese hacking caused these diverse banjo stylists to be paired. After the laughing from the large crowd died down, Washburn admitted that their real story was more sedate: they met at a square dance.
Washburn also noted that there was a midwife sitting in the crowd, in case she needed some medical assistance.
The bluegrass music the couple unleashed wasn’t funny, it was just plain marvelous.
“We were just doing what we always do on stage,” Washburn said. “I’m just glad it touched the audience.”
And touch it they did from first note to the final song, with Washburn singing and dancing in percussive timing at the end.
Cane Mill Road took advantage of its biggest opportunity yet at MerleFest to promote their soon-to-be-released second album. It is the first with new guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, the 20-year-old Casey Lewis.
After playing one set in the Little Pickers’ tent, the group was hustled across campus to the Plaza stage. The timing of the move couldn’t have been more perfect.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. It was a great experience.
The powerful Peter Rowan was wrapping up another rendition of his standard “Burning Man,” backed by crowd favorite Donna the Buffalo on the nearby Hillside stage as Cane Mill Road was finishing its setup.
With concert-goers streaming from the Hillside area to other venues, Cane Mill Road stormed into its energetic material and stopped many of the ticket-holders in their tracks. It didn’t take long for these four young, but talented prodigies to win over a new set of fans.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased,” 15-year-old multi-instrumentalist and CMB leader Liam Purcell said. “It was a great experience.”
Cane Mill Road blended material from it’s latest album, “Gap to Gap,” with several cover songs to get the most impact from the crowd. With great acoustics to work with in this quaint setting, Purcell and Lewis were fortified by standout soloing from banjo player Tray Wellington and bassist Eliot Smith.
One of the highlights was the superb execution of MerleFest-founder Doc Watson’s bluegrass arrangement of the George Gershwin classic, “Summertime.” If you wanted to witness an almost spiritual, torch-passing of this genre’s past to its future, this one couldn’t have been more perfect.
The stakes were raised again on Saturday morning when an extended, 40-minute set sparkled even more than the two outstanding shows on Friday.
As Cane Mill Road performed in the secluded Little Pickers’ tent again, curious music lovers began to take notice and a sizable crowd began to form.
Among the onlookers who gathered were Fleck, Washburn and longtime CMR mentor Peter Wernick, a legendary banjoist nicknamed Dr. Banjo in these parts.
Afterwards, Fleck, Washburn and Wernick pulled the CMR members aside to encourage them on some of the finer points of playing and performing before posing for photographs with this up-and-coming band.
It was a poignant moment that Cane Mill Road will long remember. And one that illustrated again how the past, present and future of the MerleFest continues to converge in amazing ways.