Early Merlefest Highlights: Brothers Comatose, Mike Farris, More

The Brothers Comatose with Nicki Bluhm at Merlefest 2016. All photos by Amos Perrine.

Twenty-eight years after it launched, the annual MerleFest, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is now halfway into another year.

I arrived midday on Friday -- day two of the event -- just in time to catch Portland, Oregon-based old-time group Foghorn Stringband. The quartet was in excellent form, delivering a traditional set that was heavy on harmonies, with Caleb Klauder's astute mandolin picking taking a lot of the leads. It was only a shame to see them ant-like on the giant mainstage, performing to a relatively sparse crowd. Foghorn is easily one of the Pacific Northwest's finest folk outfits, with years of performance under their belt. Their music is best taken in an intimate setting, or at least with a steady crowd of appreciative listeners. Though their set this day was exacting and inspired, it felt a like a special secret to which only a few of us lucky folks were privy. 

I packed it up when they were done and headed to the Hillside Stage, to catch San Francisco-based stringband the Brothers Comatose. Though their buzz preceded them, the group more than lived up to the hype. Perhaps the new favorite band of many in attendance, the Brothers delivered strong, dexterous picking and well-considered harmonies. To call the band "tight" would seem somehow more slick and pre-packaged than would be accurate. But they certainly have an impeccable chemistry to match their well-written tunes. To boot, they pulled their friend Nicki Bluhm (of the Gramblers) up to perform their co-written tune "Morning Time." 

Next, Washington, DC-based Celtic rock band Scythian unleashed a rousing set back at the Watson Stage, to an appreciative audience. During a press conference earlier in the day, brothers Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka shared the story about their first time at Merlefest, 10 years ago, when they set up outside the gate to play for everyone arriving at the festival. By the end of the day, they noticed people were coming back on purpose to bring their friends, and the group has performed at the festival ever since. This time, they brought with them some friends from Ireland called We Banjo 3 -- a tightknit quartet made up of two sets of brothers -- who delivered a raucous set from the Americana stage themselves. 

Then it was time for Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue to bring the party. It's a feat, one might imagine, for a band to get a field full of thousands of people on their feet at the tail end of a long, hot, sunny day, even as the sun is still peaking through the clouds. After all, Farris was not the headlining artist. But he opened up his set with an emotional, stirring rendition of Prince's "Purple Rain," before launching into his own fantastic music, much of it from 2014's Shine ... for All the People. He spiced it up with a spirited turn on Stevie Wonder's "Livin for the City," and of course unleashed his emotional rendition of Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now."  

Following Farris, Jerry Douglas's all-instrumental set was a bit of an energetic stop sign, despite the exceptional musicianship Douglas's band unleashed. (Now with the incredibly talented Christian Sedelmyer on fiddle.) Try to match the dexterity and artistry on that stage, and you'd come up short in any crowd. Though the set felt like yin to Farris's yang, it's impossible to complain about the juxtaposition of so much trailblazing musical mastery. Then finally, Old Crow Medicine Show wrapped up the night with a rock and roll-like set, sharing the story of how they met Doc Watson way back when, thanks to his daughter Nancy. No doubt everyone in the crowd was feeling thankful for Nancy's discovery this night. They were followed by Donna the Buffalo at the Midnight Jam. Not a bad night cap for one of the nation's most well-attended roots music festivals. But even better: there are still two more days. Let's hope the rain holds out.