By David Coulson. April 27, 2018. WILKESBORO, NC — A key word used to describe most years at the MerleFest is “discovery,” those special moments when you connect with another band, or solo artist that you haven’t heard before.
COVER IMAGE: Kris Kristofferson. Photographic image by Jim Gavenous for MerleFest
And it didn’t take long for this year’s audience to unearth an incredible gem on one of the most special Thursdays in the iconic bluegrass and more festival’s 31-year history.
It might have just been day one of the four-day event, but it produced musical sets that will long remain in the memories of the listeners and musicians that experienced its grandeur.
Fans knew it was going to be something special from the opening strains of the Kruger Brothers’ Roan Mountain Suite as the opening act on the Watson Stage. There was also strong anticipation for the MerleFest debut of legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who didn’t disappoint his legion of fans.
It was a group that was mostly unknown that stole the show.
But in the end, it was a group that was mostly unknown to many in the audience that stole the show.
The Mavericks, a nine-piece contingent from Texas, rewarded the remaining crowd that had bravely weathered steady rain for most of the evening with a refreshingly diverse sound that drew from Cuban, Latin, zydeco, Americana, jazz and rock roots.
From tight arrangements to spectacular soloing and great stage presence, the final act on the main stage solidly justified its prominent spot in closing out opening night.
It didn’t matter if it was polishing off a classic cover like “Save The Last Dance For Me,” or playing from its own tasty, three-album catalog, the Mavericks won the crowd’s heart from a bombastic start to the final notes as fans were dancing in the aisles and enthusiastically connecting with the band.
Whether the solos featured accordion, keyboard, guitar, trumpet, or saxophone, the music had nearly everyone enthralled.
The Switzerland-bred Kruger Brothers, reliving their first MerleFest performance as the opening act 21 years ago, mixed old and new classics in a laid-back, relaxed set that couldn’t have been a more perfect start for this event.
As a light rain began to change to the more steady cloudburst of the evening, the 80-year-old Kristofferson took the stage to almost reverent, but huge applause — an appropriate display of affection for a writer who has earned acclaim as one of the best songsmiths America has ever produced.
Backed by Merle Haggard’s original backing band, Kristofferson was somewhat sedate through the early part of his set before catching momentum as he began working through his most prominent work.
As Kristofferson’s performance reached its end, it was as if he didn’t want to leave the stage.
Some of the biggest cheers came when he barreled into “Me and Bobby McGee,” and continued through such classics as “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
One of the most fun moments came when Kristofferson coaxed guitarist Ben Haggard, Merle Haggard’s son, into a satisfying arrangement of the Haggard, tongue-in-cheek classic “Okie From Muskogee.”
Playing the guitar that bore his prominent father’s signature, Ben sang a version that would have made his dad — one of the many superstar musicians that passed away shortly before the 2016 MerleFest — proud.
As Kristofferson’s performance reached its end, it was as if he didn’t want to leave the stage. That’s not surprising, considering he has only recently returned to live shows after a battle with Lyme Disease and Fibromyalgia.
After a couple of encores, Kristofferson reluctantly exited.
Before Kristofferson’s set, Shiny Ribs — one of those discovery bands from 2016, with a cover of Price’s “When Doves Cry” that is still talked about here — delivered a rollicking, hilarious concert that was all good fun.
Frontman Kevin Russell traded his canary-yellow suit from 2016 for a colorful purple ensemble this time around. But his stage antics hadn’t changed from goofy dance steps to delivering an ultra-close-up for the onstage mobile big-screen television camera.
The performance trapping didn’t take away from the fact that this soulful, Cajun-influenced group can sing and play with the best of groups.
Robert Earl Keen didn’t bring down the intensity, finishing with a brilliant Celtic-tinged piece that had the crowd wishing he would play some more.
Performances from the Cabin Stage, in-between the Watson Stage shows, were also incredible.
Aaron Burkett left the audience wanting more with a too-short, but energetic set as he ignored the rain. And the husband and wife duo, the Masterson’s were an almost perfect warm-up for what was to come with the Mavericks.
Just when the crowd was ready to exhale, many rushed over to the dance tent to watch one of the MerleFest’s cult favorites. Donna the Buffalo, bring the memorable first day to an end with an almost jam-band feel to get nearly everyone moving for the high-spirited display.
The question at the end was: If Day One of MerleFest was this good, what is the rest of the weekend going to unveil?
For more information about MerleFest and to see the schedule of performances that run through Sunday, April 29th, CLICK HERE.