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Merlefest Moments 2016: Carlile, Isbell, Hillside Album Hour, and More

Brandi Carlile at Merlefest 2016. Photo by Lindsay Craven.

The hillside at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is nowhere you would ever go, were it not for the musical lineup that graces the stage at the bottom of the hill once a year for four days. It's a remarkably steep mess of ants and patchy grass. Lay down a picnic blanket and you're likely to slide halfway down the hill before your meal is through. But for this long weekend, there's almost no place you'd rather be, and it's there, in the three feet between chairs, where we set up a blanket to watch the Alison Brown Quartet and the hourlong set which followed: known in these parts only as the Hillside Album Hour. 

Brown's band was tight and lyrical as they moved through a series of instrumentals from her 2015 album Song of the Banjo. They began with a dreamy turn on the 1974 Orleans hit "Dance with Me." Under the careful phrasing of Brown's banjo, the soft rock classic metamorphosed into a languid, dexterous stringband tune. She noted that she made this disc to show off how musical her instrument could be, and this live set attested to its gorgeous musicality. There are few banjoists at work these days who can coax out the instrument's prettier side, but Brown seems to manage it with little effort. 

As her group played through a grey, petering mist, a steady stream of people flowed uphill, bent halfway forward to counter the hill's steepness. They were there to secure a spot for the set which followed. Fronted by the Waybacks' James Nash, the crack band assembled for this year's Album Hour included fellow San Franciscan Nicki Bluhm (of the warm, smooth voice), mandolinist Sam Bush, guitarists John Oates and Jim Lauderdale, and a handful of other Merlefest favorites. The album they unleashed this year was the Eagle's Greatest Hits, peppering it with tributes to Merle Haggard, BB King, and other artists who have passed from us in the last year or so. Nash noted that they wanted to choose an album with which everyone would want to sing along, and then mix up the songs enough that singing along would be a challenge. Mission accomplished. 

Shortly after that set was complete, the threat of rain grew exponentially. With my wife and toddler in tow, we caught the impeccably talented -- and entertaining -- Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys. Then we packed it in and drove home to Asheville. By all reports, it was the smart thing to do, considering the toddler (and all the things one must carry with them for a toddler at a festival). The sky opened up and dumped on Merlefest within an hour or two. I didn't run into anyone who managed to stick it out for Dave Rawlings Machine, but don't doubt there were plenty of hardcore folks who stayed behind.

Thankfully, the sky was clear as we woke and gathered provisions back home on Sunday morning. We made it back to Merlefest in time to catch the inimitable Tim O'Brien on the mainstage. After seeing Foghorn Stringband look so small and swallowed up by their environs there on Friday, I was struck by how a solo Tim O'Brien seemed to own the big stage, even when he leaned into a solo fiddle tune. The man is a master of the form, and unleashed a handful of selections from his 2015 recording Ponpadour, as well as long-time favorites and newer tunes from his Short Order Sessions -- a service he provides on his website, for releasing single songs one at a time. 

O'Brien was followed on the Cabin Stage by Portland, Oregon-based powerhouse vocalist Liz Vice. Her set was spirited and memorable, and shifted the vibe beautifully for a mainstage set from Seattle-based Brandi Carlile.

It was Carlile's first time at Merlefest, and she came ready to blow it out. She opened her set with "Raise Hell," from her 2012 release Bear Creek, then tore into a collection of tunes pulled mostly from last year's Firewatcher's Daughter. Much as I enjoy Carlile's songwriting, it was her attack of the cover tunes this day, that stole the show. She wrapped her crazy-good vocals around Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" with a balanced restraint and urgency that made the song feel like something she came up with herself, an hour ago.

The only artist I saw who even mentioned the issue, Carlile excoriated North Carolina's recent House Bill 2 -- the notorious "bathroom bill" that stretches beyond its purport of legislating which bathroom transgendered people can use, and prevents local governments from protecting LGBT people against discrimination, among other overreaches. "North Carolina," she said, "doesn't always look like its politics."

Over email last week, I asked her about her decision to maintain her North Carolina dates at a time when other musicians were canceling left and right. After all, the Grammy-nominated singer is an out lesbian with a wife and child who travel with her on the road.

"I think it's important for artists to get behind the movements they believe in because art leads change in its purest form. The universal language of music ... changes hearts instead of minds," she said. "As a gay Jesus follower, the place where my need for social justice and my writing usually collide is [when] I feel that someone is being blatantly excluded or overlooked. North Carolina, Mississippi, and the other places following suit [with laws targeting LGBT people] have been heavy on my mind for this reason."

Then she added: "The one form of dissent I can't get behind is the one that says 'shut up and sing' -- that's bullshit and I won't do it. "

Indeed, the Merlefest crowd seemed to appreciate her decision to wield her platform in this way. They were on their feet to applaud her comments, which she followed by tearing into "The Story" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." She closed her set alone on the stage, with a gorgeous turn on Emmylou Harris's "Red Dirt Girl."

An easy highlight of the day, Carlile was followed by a too-short set from Sierra Hull on the Cabin Stage -- a breath of fresh air, with the intricate instrumentalism and self-exploratory songwriting that characterizes her latest effort, this year's Weighted Mind

But it was Jason Isbell that so many in this crowd came to see, and the Americana favorite delivered an unbridled set of tunes, mostly from his last two albums: 2013's Southeastern and last year's Something More Than Free (both ND community Albums of the Year during their respective years of release).

What can be said in this space about Isbell that hasn't already? He is an exceptional guitarist and songwriter, whose last couple of albums are easily among the best of his generation. Two nights earlier, John Prine took the same stage, throwing down the gauntlet for truly great songwriting and performance. To close out the festival, Jason Isbell came along and picked it back up. 

Indeed, the kind of music Merlefest presents -- the kind of music ND exists to lift up -- is about connections, about carrying something on that was handed to you. While Isbell's music -- like Carlile's and O'Briens, and that of every artist on this lineup -- speaks on behalf of the people making it, it's also a testament to the long chain of the American story. It's a story that's been told through the lyrical musicality of banjos, the careful tribute to those who have come before, the all-alone fiddling and crowded-room jam sessions, the dexterous virtuosity, and powerful pipes of singers. And, all told, the story this music tells about America looks a whole lot different than its politics. 

Til next year, Merlefest. 

Alison Brown and John Oates/James Nash photos by Amos Perrine. Jason Isbell photo by Jim Gavenus for Merlefest. 

Thanks Kim! I'm glad to hear that Brandi brought up HB2.  I do find it odd that she was the only one who mentioned it?!   A benefit on May 15th, Stand Against HB2,  at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, NC benefits Equality NC and their efforts to fight this ridiculous bill.

Here's the line up in order of performance:

Brett Harris
Members of MIPSO
Johnny Folsom 4
Joe Newberry & Laurelyn Dossett
OG Merge
Jeffrey Dean Foster
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
Tres Chicas
John Howie, Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff
The dB's 
The Love Language
Robert Kirkland & Rod Abernethy 
Jon Heames & His Secret Surprise 
Yeaux Katz
Henbrain 
Someone's Sister 
shirlette ammons
The Backsliders 
The Veldt 
The Connells
Jon Lindsay
Southern Culture on the Skids 
FINALE

 

Note-The show is sold-out (which is both really good for the fight against HB2 but bad for supporters who did not get a ticket-me)

Can't we just keep it about the music and leave your politics (and mine) out of it?

I'd have to throw out a whole lot of my albums if I decided I'd only listen to musicians that left politics out of their music.  

For the record, this publication is named for one of the Carter Family's only topical songs. We cover music that champions the legacy of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, among many others. To "leave politics out of it" and "only" discuss the music would be to ignore the roots of what we call "roots" music. And in this case, it would mean pretending that a meaningful moment never happened at a music festival. 

Interesting... I didn't realize that.   I always took the meaning of the Carter Family song as more one of Christian salvation, recognizing the difference between an imperfect world where there is suffering and a heaven where there is "no depression", and roots simply being based reflective of the various streams of folk, blues, scots/irish and other ethnic traditions that have formed the diverse fabric of our music today.  There have always been radicals in all of these traditions, but there have also been many voices of conservative values of home, hearth and community and living close to the land.  In any case, my point is simply that our nation is at a peak point of divisiveness, where people on both sides of many debates feel misunderstood and dehumanized.  Instead of beating each other up with political slogans, music is something that can unite us and heal us.  

The song wasn't about mental depression when they sang it, it was a comment about the Great Depression, the fact that common people were suffering while the wealthy profited. Throw heaven into anything and I guess there will always be people who think it's a hymn. Anyhow, I'm a progressive person (and a queer lady) and I also value home, community, and living close to the land. Those things are not necessarily synonymous with "conservative values."

Regardless, I reckon that if you want to read what someone has to say about music and you don't want to, at the same time, be asked to think about the world in which that music has been created, the world in which it lives, the experiences and ideas that inspired that music in the first place, then there are other writers whose voices are more accustomed to that. I try to contextualize. I try to follow the roots all the way out, exploring the ideas and experiences that have been touched and impacted by the music -- and those that touched and impacted the people making the music. I value the humanity inherent in the music, and I don't like to gloss over things. I think anything in the world that inspires music and musicians is fair game. I think if we can be open to hearing what musicians have to say about what matters to them, we might learn not only about their creative processs (which can enrich our experience of the music) but also about ourselves. I think the less we try to sweep under the rug and the more open we are to discussing even the difficult things with one another -- whether it's across a dinner table, at a festival, or in a song -- the farther we can get from the kind of divisiveness we're seeing now. 

Amen to all that. Here, on the other side of the world, HB2 was news and I, for one, was interested in how Merlefest might deal with it. I don't think of it so much as a "political" issue - more a human rights issue. 

Viewed through the lens of history HB2 will be seen as the last gasp of dinosaurs.  I've heard it described as a solution in search of a problem.

That's a good description...RFRA in Indiana was last year's version...and in case you hadn't noticed, my home state stuck a fork in Ted last night...Craig Mazin is dancing a little jig today I'll bet...

of course, that does likely mean that the Donald is the presumptive GOP Presidential candidate...so Bill's hope for conversation and unity and the healing power of music is likely not coming to fruition anytime soon...the Donald does not know the words to "Kumbaya"...

Who said "mental depression"?  Where did that come from?  Obviously it was the great depression.  Also, I am not using the words radical or conservative politically, but in the broader sense that radical means disruptive of a status quo, and conservative means preserving or conserving, as in "conservation".  I'm trying to get us away from the political and into the human.  As you know from either Ecclesiastes or the Byrds song or both, "To everything there is a season".  I think that right now is the season for healing and just trying to understand each other better as fellow humans.  In the current climate, the politics seems to be working counter to that.  So if our leaders on both sides of the aisle are spewing lies and hate, then its up to the roots to show love and understanding and lead at a grass roots level.  

 

I don't disagree with you on the love and understanding thing. But I think there's a point, when you're telling someone else how to write and to adhere to what you deem as acceptable to talk about in the context of music criticism, where it crosses a line. If you have things to say about music that you view as "more uniting," please by all means write them. You do have a point, but I don't necessarily agree with all of it (nor do I have to). I say yes to love and understanding, no to pretending music has no political context. Where my writing is concerned, I stand by my words and thank you for your comments. 

Well put...can't add to that...

Thanks for the dialogue, and for the record, I wasn't critiquing your writing, but simply replying to my fellow poster.

 

I didn't know I was the guilty party!   I guess I could have left "ridiculous" out of my description of HB2. But then again I could have used much worse language. 

On a lighter (and darker) note I was watching Boardwalk Empire (yeah, I'm late to the game but I prefer to binge on series that are complete) last night after Trump was titled the presumptive Republican nominee.   In the episode Nucky shook his head and stated "That imbecile is going to be the next President of the United States".

That's hilarious...I remember that episode...good show, consistenly high quality...Buscemi is terrific...looks like a walking corpse on that show...so pale, with all those dark pinstripe suits...

You are guilty as charged Hal...your sentence is to listen to "Pelican Bay"!

Nucky was the best!

 

To begin with Mr. Huber, to say let's talk about music but leave out politics is sort of like saying let's talk about religion but leave out God (or gods). Music, like all art, is about the human condition and politics, perhaps unfortuanately, is a big part of the human condition and one that is turning our country into a split-personality schitzophrenic and therefore extremely important.

Secondly, to throw out words like radical and conservative and then claim you didn't mean it in a political sense makes no sense. Those are political buzz words and will undoubtedly be taken in that context. To think it wouldn't is simply naive.

Thirdly, your definition of conservative as the consevative values of home, hearth and community sounds harmless and even admirable and you later stated conservative means preserving or conversing as in conservation. Well, conservation, as in environmental conservation, is about the only progressive meaning of that word. Conservative usually means conserving such lovely conventions as racism, sexism, homophobia and ethnic genocide. I always find it intersting that positive things we take for granted like laws against child labor, the 40-hour work week, the elimination of slavery and Social Security were all progressive ideas way back when that had to fight against all the conservative values of the day that fought against those changes. Either society will progress, despite the continual set-backs created by angry conservatives, or it will die. And the popularity of Donald Trump really sounds like a death knell to me.

Just stop. You don't know what you're talking about.  Peace.

Yes Dennis. Shut up and sing.

The title of my new protest song Hal!..."Shut Up and Sing"...I'll give you, Dennis and Bill (and Nucky) a writing credit...that's not bad either...I remember reading Hunter Thompson back in the day and he mentioned he'd written a song with Jimmy Buffett and a couple of other guys...said he got a royalty check in the mail for $.09 once...

None of you needs to say thanks either...just the kind of guy I am...

So Jim, when are you going to post your new protest song? I'm anxious to hear it. (Hunter Thompson also co-wrote some songs with Warren Zevon. I wonder how much he got for those.)

Good question Dennis...waiting for the muse to strike is my excuse...Jackson Browne once said sometimes you get the title first, but you don't know what the song is about...when he wrote "Late For the Sky" it was like that...he was late to the airport for a flight and it occurred to him he was late for his plane, late for the sky...he told his girlfriend or wife at the time about the title he had and she asked what the song was about...he said "I don't know, you'll have to wait and see"...her response was "Well, this better be good...".  And it was much better than good, but it sure wasn't about being late for an airplane...

Maybe "Shut Up and Sing" is like that...a title looking for a story...

The last time I saw David Lindley, he talked a lot about Warren Zevon...a couple of the stories he told, Warren was a crazy guy, and the songs bear that out...no surprise Warren and Hunter were friends, they both had a great affection for overindulgence in substance legal and not, and guns...and both were great writers in their chosen milieu...

 

Believe me, Hal, if you heard me sing you'd rather hear me talk about stuff I "know nothing about." I'll readily admit I'm a fool who doesn't know shit but I also believe so is everybody else. We are all the center of our own universe and so live with a perspective shared by no one. So I would say you, Mr. Huber, are certainly as full of shit as myself...but I would never tell you to stop expressing yourself.

I'm not a big contributor to this site, but I really appreciate it. Politics divides this country and there's nothing wrong with that. That said, music can unite it. i think all of us that frequent No Depression share a love for roots music( whatever you care to call it). Sitting side by side at Merlefest, nodding our heads, clapping our hands, brings us together whatever your political viewsm or demographic. That's why I go. I come to this site to focus on what we have in common; love of tight harmonies, string bands (in my case) not what divides us. I read the comments to learn about new bands and new talent. What I love about Merlefest is the family atmosphere and sharing the wonder of live music with people that are like-minded, at least about that. I support your right to have an opinion and express it. I wish that we can concentrate on what unites us, not what divides us. This reply is not aimed at any individuals in particular- just my 2 cents. Now tell me about what you are currently listening to. Btw, the new Lucinda Williams album ( yes, album, is dark AND brilliant !

Actually I agree with you Timothy. Talking music makes me happy; talking politics makes me so angry I almost feel suicidal. So...after Hal Bogerd's great interview with Eric Brace here on ND I got Eric's and Peter Cooper's wonderful 2010 rlease "Master Sessions" which features Lloyd Green on steel guitar and Mike Auldridge on dobro--excellent album. I also got their 2013 release "The Comeback Album" which is also really good but alas, no Mike Auldridge because he died in 2012. I'm also enjoying Blackie Farrell's long-awaited debut album, "Cold Country Blues." It's kind of strange to hear his unfamiliar voice singing such familiar songs as his poignant "Sonora's Death Row," (I'm used to Leo Kottke's version) and I never liked his "Mama Hated Diesel's" back in the 70s when I heard in on a Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen album. It struck me as a country parody. But all the other songs are quite good.

Dennis, thanks for the recommendations. I will look them up and give them a listen. Have a wonderful weekend!

I would love to see the dB's again.   Hopefully they go on the road again after this show.   Stamey's album last year was in my top 10.

And thanks Kim for being one of the few people I've seen write about the law that recognizes it has nothing to do with "bathrooms".  

Yes...nothing at all to do with bathrooms...even the Donald recognizes that much...

The Donald has a great relationship with the Transgenders.

and the Women.

and the poorly educated.

and the Hispanics.

and the Muslims.

Yes...he is an equal opportunity offender...

Is the Transgenders a band?  Did they play at Merlefest?

 

 

 

 

this was in reference to Jack Williams comment, but it didn't show up in the right order...FYI...

I hear Sarah Potenza mentioned HB2 -- and, in tears, explained that she has a transgender family member. Also heard that Carbon Leaf donated their fee to NC's ACLU. 

Good to know! I stand corrected. 

Wonderful, evocative piece that captures Merlefest, the artists who play there, and yourself. Makes a person more than proud to be associated with ND. Tears welled up as I read. Thanks, Kim

"I hear Sarah Potenza mentioned HB2 -- and, in tears, explained that she has a transgender family member. Also heard that Carbon Leaf donated their fee to NC's ACLU."  Yes, they did! As mentioned above "art and artist" can make a huge change in the way we see and hear things. I think it would be a tragedy to leave out political or other worldviews. The artist that we love and cheerish have an opportunity and to me a responsibility to make people aware. 

Sarah Potenza Merlefest 2016 

Brandi Carlile was a huge highlight for me this year. I was only vaguely familiar with her music before seeing her set at Merelfest. Wow! She has an incredible voice and very powerful songs. I love the rock and roll vibe she gives off as well. Her best covers were the Led Zeppelin and Emmy Lou songs. I'll definitely be checking out her most recent albums. 

The Brothers Comatose rocked the Hillside Stage Friday afternoon.  They energized everyone in attendance with tight harmonies and a rapport with the crowd that belies their experience. Look for them live- i have a feeling they may be the "next big thing". 

Great band name...I'm not sure if it sets high or low expecations, but I'll be checking them out...

Jim, they were wonderful live. Their recorded stuff doesn't sound as good; but i guess it never does. See them live if you have a chance- a string band from San Francisco...