Held annually at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, MerleFest has been a traditional music mecca in North Carolina for 35 years. Artists from around the country flock to the Appalachian foothills to hear a wide range of artists — both in styles and ages.
For the 35th anniversary this year, which took place over the last weekend of April, the festival was also celebrating what would have been Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. (MerleFest is named after the legendary musician’s son, Merle, who died at age 36.)
Here’s a handful of takeaways from a fantastic weekend of music.
1. Headliners are always the icing on the cake
Sure, there were plenty of talented artists on the bill from start to finish, but the production level and enthusiasm for the headliner almost always hits another level. This year’s festival was headlined by Brothers of a Feather featuring Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes on Thursday night; The Avett Brothers on Friday night; Maren Morris on Saturday; and on Sunday, The Travelin’ McCourys, filling in for Nickel Creek who had to cancel due to illness.
While The Avetts have played more acoustically in the past, this year’s performance was a full-band powerhouse set that included a tribute to Harry Belafonte with a spirited cover of “Jump in the Line.” Maren Morris finished Saturday night with a concert rooted in country.
2. There are times to get plugged in
Sure, there are plenty of banjos, fiddles and acoustic music, but that doesn’t stop the festival from booking louder artists. Marcus King blasted the roof off of the Watson Stage on Friday night with a powerful (and loud) blues-infused set.
Even the Sam Bush Band on Saturday night wrapped up with a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” as Bush himself played an electric mandolin.
3. Keep an eye on the kids
Multi-instrumentalist Wyatt Ellis has already caught the eye of Billy Strings and it’s no surprise. Ellis shredded his way through the weekend, even impressing his peers at Mando Mania while playing alongside Sam Bush, Tony Williamson and others. Is it too soon to have a “next Billy Strings”?
Bee Taylor is new on the scene to me and is sure to turn heads with her energetic take on Americana. She’s been compared to the likes of Amy Winehouse and Elle King, and even she had a hard time sitting still while playing that keyboard.
4. Bring the energy
There are times to slow down and enjoy the music and there are times to kick up the energy or bring the emotion. Scythian was just getting started on Friday when lightning was seen in the area, cutting their set short. They made up for lost time the next day with a raucous set on the Americana Stage. Early on Saturday, Miko Marks won over countless new fans with a soulful performance on the main stage.
One of the biggest ovations of the day came for the Black Opry Revue, made up of Chris Pierce, Mel Washington, Nikki Morgan, Ping Rose, Yasmin Williams, Leon Timbo and Aaron Vance. Each artist played a song of their own before Marks joined them for a final song as a collective. Even the stage announcer remarked that it was the group’s first time at MerleFest, but they can’t get them back soon enough.
If you’re ever in the area, MerleFest is always worth checking out. You’re bound to find artists you’ve never heard of but will listen to again as much as you’ll hear some favorites or at the very least get a new perspective on an old tune.
Be sure to check out Queen City Nerve’s Soundwave, Charlotte’s most comprehensive live music listing, so you don’t miss out on any shows or concerts coming up. And hell, if you’re looking for something else to do, you can check out our events page as well, which runs the gamut of things to do in Charlotte. You don’t ever have to be bored again. You can check out more of Jeff’s pics and live reviews here.
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