By Samir Shukla
You know you are about to be surrounded by music, warm and cozy music, when you can feel it in the air on the old school bus shuttling you from the parking lot to the venue, about a mile away. As soon as the bus pulls up to the entrance of MerleFest, the acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and human voices joined in song fill the air. We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday, April 29 for the 2016 edition of MerleFest, a four-day gathering of musicians and music lovers on the campus of Wilkesboro Community College tucked in the hills of Wilkesboro, NC. The bands and solo performers were playing over the many stages scattered throughout the site. Most of the stages were outdoors and either placed at the bottom of the hillside, next to creeks, astride campus buildings, or on the vast grass promenade, where the main Watson stage hosted the headliners.
The indoor Walker Center was also brimming with bands, and I caught the husband and wife-led Atlanta band The Whiskey Gentry plow through an energetic set, ending with the pared-down duo singing a sweet song.
Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Review got the crowd pumped with their dance-inducing R&B and rock. The big-voiced Farris led his band with a sound reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone and Prince, tossed with feisty jazz and soul. He did a fine version of Prince's “Purple Rain" and sang at the top of his voice throughout the set, despite suffering a sore throat.
Other performances this day included Jerry Douglas warming the cool evening with jazzy, Americana instrumentals and songs on the Watson stage.
Veteran band Donna the Buffalo played every day at MerleFest and this afternoon they cozied to the crowd on the hillside stage with their roots music doused with some Cajun numbers.
The DC-based Celtic-rockers Scythian and the Irish group, We Banjo three, played a raucous set together on the Watson stage, the crowd jumping and dancing along. Scythian also played later on the Dance stage, further rousing the crowd.
These are just some of the full sets I caught at the fest, along with snippets of performers all over the venue.
The warm afternoon eased into a cool evening and night as the temperature dropped, but the bands, impromptu jammers, and others played on. MerleFest is an annual fundraiser for the community college and its academic outreach. The family-friendly event features activities for kids, songwriting contests, jam-alongs, sing-alongs and lots more. Begun by the legendary Doc Watson in 1988, the festival has evolved into an internationally recognized, must-attend bucket list event for many music lovers around the globe. The 2017 MerleFest will take place from April 27-30. For details visit, www.MerleFest.org.