This year, Merlefest celebrated its 22nd year of music and art in the unbelievable heat of Wilkesboro, NC. The festival boasted accommodations for young and old alike, mixing a variety of bluegrass knowns and unknowns with local art, food, and family activities. Smoking was not permitted during the festival this year; the staff policed the area looking for butts and blazes, and was thwarted by hipsters carrying lit incense to distract from smoking friends and cover up smoky smells. Kids had a playground to play on that gave parents a decent view of the main stage, so no one had to miss out. Amongst the performers was the legendary Steve Martin performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers, who is rumored to be retiring to the close-by North Carolina Mountains this year. Other big acts included Little Feat, Donna the Buffalo, the Zac Brown Band, Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, and many more, but this year’s focus seemed centered on the final act of the festival, The Avett Brothers.
These local heroes and breakthrough musicians have been on the Merlefest scene for years now, even submitting songs to its yearly songwriters contest. They have more recently gained national recognition for their newest album, I and Love and You, which they released last year. The brothers, Scott and Seth, are joined by band members Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon, but began as a family band that performed together at home every Sunday. In fact, Jim Avett, Scott and Seth’s father, played a set in Merlefest this year, and their sister Bonnie was featured in the song “Swept Away.” As the brothers took to the stage, the first words eager fans heard were “we are so glad to be home.”
The Avett Brothers opened with “Traveling Song,” which was written to be a fast-paced song but was played to a much slower, meaningful tempo. They impressed fans with an intense call-and-answer chorus in “Distraction #74,” and jammed out at the end of almost every song. The brothers showcased their rendition of Ray Miller’s “Where Have all the Average People Gone,” which fit in seamlessly with the overriding theme of most of their songs: growing up in a world that is nothing like they thought it would be. Fans interacted with the band in their performance, counting on outstretched fingers the ‘three words that became hard to say’ in “I and Love and You” and clapping out the heartbeat in “Kick Drum Heart.” As the show wrapped up, fans screamed for an encore, and were granted “Laundry Room” and “Slight Figure of Speech.”
As a final act, this was a wise choice for Merlefest, as most of the fans in the audience were lyric-singing, die-hard fans, many of whom bought one-day tickets to see this sole act. The variety of song choices on the part of the Avetts were perfectly arranged to start slow, build to a dancing frenzy, and then mellow back out by encore. The sound was impeccable, and talking between songs was kept to a minimum, which seemed to make what little they did say more significant. The only disappointment was with the new drummer, who could not seem to keep up with the drum parts that used to be done by Seth. “Kick Drum Heart” has a distinct drum part, which was thankfully clapped out by fans, since the drummer didn’t seem to be able to play it fast enough. The boys made up for it by ending the song with an extra-long jam session, but the lack of kick drum in a song that clearly requires it was somewhat saddening. Despite that tiny drawback, the show was extremely moving and heartfelt, and fans and newcomers alike were up out of their seats for nearly the entire set. It was a beautiful way to end this year’s Merlefest.
Set List :
Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise
Paranoia in B Flat Major
Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane
Kick Drum Heart
When I Drink
Swept Away - Featuring Bonnie Avett
I and Love and You
Where Have All the Average People Gone (Ray Miller)