Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip, Days 5 and 6, April 28 and 29, 2012

Road Trip, Days 5 and 6, April 28 and 29, 2012

It was cold as hell on April 28 and hot as that same brimstone place on April 29, For festival purposes I'll take the cold, even the really cold. The cold was garnished with the odd sprinkle of rain and was covered by an overcast sky that at most let the sun peek through from time to time. It being Saturday, and in the shank of the festival, the cold, though quite hard to take, seemed to give people buoyancy in their step and a sharp good feeling. Contrarily, the beating down heat of Sunday, so hard to take, became one leg of a three legged stool of melancholy, the other two being the gloomy day of Sunday itself with the Monday work week beckoning and the it being the last day of the festival, a festival in the works for a year, with so many people dreaming it for a year. 

Again on Saturday Sharon tended to stay put while I went into the Wilkes Community college buildings to see a thumb picking workshop and then a slide guitar workshop. They were fine and directly after I caught part of a day's worth of acoustic blues bannered, "The Greatest Acoustic Blues Show On Earth" which had been organized by the non pareil guitarist Roy Book Binder. He looks like he's a waiter in a New York Deli or your waggish Uncle Morty, his face festooned with an oversized mustache and marked by a perpetual wry and knowing New York style  three quarters grin and one quarter smirk. He's got a gravelly voice and a tough street smart sensibility. He studied under the famed Reverend Gary Davis,  a Piedmont country blues guitarist who migrated to New York where he became the beloved mentor to a whole list of aspiring young white blues guitarists. For all his street roughened ways, Roy Book Binder plays the acoustic blues guitar like an angel when he wants to and like the rocking devil too when he wants to.

Stefan Grossman then took the acoustic blues stage, a good friend of Roy's and also a pupil of Reverend Davis. Both he and Book Binder are entirely unadorned, entirely without pretense, both wryly funny, at complete ease with an audience and knowing of their own extraordinary musical competence. From that knowing--and of course from that competence--come an emanating strength and self assurance, an equanimity that allows them to be effortlessly playful and commanding on stage with no need to prove anything to anybody. On stage together they might seem Borscht Belt Wise guys with their Yiddish inflected New York humor. But then they start in to playing and it's "Oh My," the audience to a person wishing they could just play on and on.

 I then go back to the  to see the grizzled Tony Rice and his band. He's an icon of what's called the "Newgrass Revival" revival brought about in the early seventies by that generation of artists who began playing what might be an analogue to bebop in jazz, a kind of progressive bluegrass in which they departed from tradition to play whatever they wanted with whatever configuration of instruments they wanted. A lot of these Newgrass guys were hell raisers too. And Tony Rice looks as grizzled as a man whose wild ways have overtaken him can look. Five years younger than me--I'm 39, he looks at least thirty five years older, with no speaking voice left to speak of, let alone a singing voice. But he's no less a player and he surrounds himself, as do all the main artists at Merlefest, with world class musicians. I enjoy his time on stage.

After Tony Rice comes a rather sad scene. Doc Watson, now 93, and a klatch of his former play mates, so to speak, and former friends of Doc's son Merle, including Sam Bush, T. Michael Coleman, Little Joe Smothers, Davis Holt, Mitch Green and John Cowan just to name a few, appear on stage together to celebrate Doc and Merle.  Not meaning to demean Doc Watson, and in fact lauding his picking at 93--it's amazing what he can still do--but still he's more figurehead than anything else among his former protégés. And, so, he soon becomes more background than foreground. While his play mates' affection and caring for him are obvious, I sense he gets in the way of their playing and, paradoxically, their celebrating of him Merle. They have to keep repeating what key they'll play their next song in till he finally gets it and he keeps looking for the picks he wishes to use, his calling to them ignored or unheard by the others. He is a spectral presence among them, a virtual ghost of himself. I wondered if it was me overreacting and over interpreting all this but, unsolicited by me, Sharon noticed it as well and said so. 

The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile are the penultimate act of the very cold Saturday night. I can only say I has never heard of them before but  maybe they performed at the highest level of musicality of the whole festival . They played both inside and outside but their outside, unlike Bela Fleck's, made intuitive sense to me, for its exploration, humor, sheer musicality, and vibrantly compelling playing and singing. There was for me no sense of outside playing merely for the novelty of it. And unlike Bela Fleck's group, they moved seamlessly between each mode of playing and played traditional bluegrass with love and sincerity while also exuding an attitude sharply foreign to bluegrass, even in the innovation and "progressiveness"  of the Newgrass Revival, and that attitude is unimpeachable ironic cool.  

What is it about bluegrass that since its inception, like jazz, it attracts such brilliant musicians who can play any kind of music anywhere they want?

If it was cold Friday night, what with Sharon turning blue and all, Friday's cold had nothing to say to Saturday night's cold. I talked to our lodge proprietress, Ashley, who has a B.A. in anthropology from Appalaichan State University and an MA in Appalaichan studies and is now making it in high country real estate, and she put it well in her Carolinian drawl: "I'm a mountain girl but Saturday night was cold. I couldn't hardly take it." And so a dilemma attacked us: abiding the cold or leaving matched with staying to hear the superb Tedeschi Trucks Band featuring the great blues and soul singer Susan Tedeschi,  a rocking singer with a raspy big voice filigreed with honey and her husband Derek Trucks a blazing electric slide virtuoso who channels Southern Rock as per the Allman Brothers, not least because he's the nephew of Butch Trucks a drummer for the Allman Brothers Band and one of its founding members.

To digress some, about 15 years I was in a record store in Florida and saw a CD by her called Just Won't Burn. She looked blonde and pretty on the CD cover and I liked the selection of tunes. I had never heard of her but I figured "What the hell." I bought it and was blown away buy her ferocious singing. As for Derek Trucks, he was making waves in blues and rock circles as a teen age electric guitar pheenom. I took my whole family, my kids weren't quite yet teen agers, if I'm remembering correctly, to see him at Toronto's infamous El Mocambo and, needless to say, his fiery playing was sensational. Whenever either of them came to Toronto, I tried to take them in. And then I heard they were performing together and then I heard they were married. I saw them both at the Bishopstock Blues Festival in Exeter in the early nineties with my running buddy James Rose. Their appearance there was unexpected and an absolute delight. Seeing them headlining Merlefest this year was an equal surprise and thrill and represented to me a certain circle in my experience nicely closing.

That booking, by the way, is a proof of Merlefest's festival brilliance. Tedeschi  Trucks is pretty far from bluegrass in that band's full on, electric, hard driving Southen rock complete with horn section. But I take the position that authentic rock and authentic rock and roll, including classic doo wop, are all folk musics and as such are part of good American popular music, as distinguished from the ersatz crap that gets so much attention and as distinguished from the effete purists who got upset when Dylan went electric and maintain their quaint purity to this day. Merlefest and its musician revel in rock and roll, jazz and the blues. Doc Watson in a North Carolina minute would do a BB King tune or a work of art that some of his celebrants said was written by America's greatest poet Charles Berry, also known as Chuck Berry.

Anyway, digression over, we balanced the cold against Tedeschi Trucks and split things down the broad middle, suffering for their art but only to a point, leaving after the band had done a few good long numbers. I guess you could say we were chillin' but literally. And then we were gone. I had to admire the freezing-be-damned of the tens of thousands who stayed to see the band to its end. Maybe in my younger years, maybe being there with a guy like I did in 1991 with James Rose, I would have stayed till the end too and for the partying after too. But not now at 65 and not now with my wife. Truth to tell I was happy to get outta' there when we did.

 Sunday, as noted, was a hard day for the heat, for it being Sunday, in Camus's sense of Sunday as the loneliest, gloomiest day of the week and for it being the festival's last day. We leisurely got to Wilkesboro around noon. As the day wore on, the late afternoon lengthening shadows seemed precisely to measure the lengthening melancholy setting in. And so a certain double mindedness struck me as being evidently in the air. There was the same boundless enthusiasm for the big name closing acts--penultimately Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives  (who live up to their name); and then last, but arguably most, Alison Krause and Union Station featuring perhaps the world's greatest, seemingly effortless, and understated, Dobro player, Jerry Douglas and featuring too, at least to my mind, the wonderful voice of her mandolin/guitar player Dan Tyminski. (Another YouTube suggestion, check out his haunting Man of Constant Sorrow, classically done by Ralph Stanley.) Tyminski's version is its own thing of beauty. 

All that is one of the mindednesses.

aBut the other simultaneous attitude was the sheer sadness of the festival ending, mitigating what would have otherwise been the unalloyed appreciation of these magnificent closing talents. But I shared none of that double mindednesses. I loved the festival but for whatever reason was not a whit sad that it was ending and was quite pragmatic about leaving before Alison Krause finished, albeit to my tolerable regret, to make sure we got to our car and  outta' there without getting hopelessly mired in the departing tens of thousands.  As to my essential single mindedness about the festival's closing, well Sir, what can I tell you?

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