Merlefest: Album Hour

Merlefest was magical, start to finish.  I’m still mulling over superlatives.  Maybe I’ll post those next.   In four solid days of music, though, there’s one particular event that’s absolutely worth writing home about.  It is a phenomenal idea which has taken root and become THE party to attend of the festival.

It’s the Hillside Album Hour, by the Waybacks.  Album Hour aside, They’re a fun group, in their own right, but a few years back, they did a surprise set in which they covered a Led Zeppelin album.  People loved that, so they came back and did another album the next year.  And the next few years after that.  The album is always a tightly guarded secret, although they’ll float out a few hints ahead of time.  They take over the hillside amphitheater, and bring in special guests.  It’s complete mayhem, in the hour or two before it starts:

People packed in by the thousands, scooching themselves together on the forty-five-degree angle hill, and digging in with their heels for a foothold.

A small amount of backstory:  in the car on the way up, Audrey revealed to me that her first album ever, given to her by her father, was Pearl.  I died of jealousy in the front seat.  That album is hanging on my wall.  “Me and Bobby McGee” is in my top two favorite songs of all time (next to “Thunder Road,” if you’re wondering.)  One year I was Janis, on the cover of Pearl, for Halloween.  I love her.  I had been at Merlefest less than fifteen minutes when I bought this:

and yes, that is a pocketbook made of neckties and album covers.

So we had heard that the special guest for Album Hour was Sarah Dugas, and I caught part of her set a couple of hours before the Waybacks started.  She has a remarkable voice.  A unique voice.  A powerhouse of a voice.   A voice kind of like….

Audrey and Julia and I gathered on the hillside to claim a spot.  I looked at Audrey and said, “I know what the album is going to be.”  Audrey said, “It HAS to be.  Doesn’t it?”   We wished with all our might. We locked arms in solidarity. Julia said she doubted she’d have any idea; there was no way she’d be able to call it, or identify the album once it started, but she was sure she’d enjoy whatever they picked just fine.   As Album Hour drew near, the air was crackling with electricity and suspense.  Bets were placed.  Smack was talked.  But we were sure.  We felt smug.

The band took the stage, and sound-checked, and the crowd was crazed.  They started up with a slow, meandering intro; electric guitar, and fiddle and drums.  They circled around a beat, and then got closer to something that sounded like music, and then Julia gasped.

“Dar nar NAR nar,”  she air-guitared.  Audrey and I stared at her.  She was about to explode.  “DAR NAR NAR NAR!” she air guitared again.  I had nothing.  Julia almost fell off the hillside, when the band launched into this:

Audrey and I were deflated. But also amused, because who’d have ever pegged Julia as the girl who knows every note of Purple Haze?  Apparently, it was the angry teenager album she’d slam the door to and blast really loud in her room to annoy her mother.  You’d never have guessed any of that, about Julia.

I know exactly zilch about Purple Haze.  It was never my thing.  Although I didn’t get to rock out Pearl on the hillside,  I did have fun air guitaring, “SCUZE ME, WHILE I KISS THE SKY DAR NAR NAR, NAR NAR NAR! DAR NAR NAR!”  during the one song I could identify.  The rest, actually, I liked a lot.  After a song or two, the band put down the electric guitars, and brought out Sarah Dugas, and John Cowan, and Sam Bush, and a bunch of other heavy hitters. and tore up the hillside with Hendrix on mandolin and fiddle.  It was great fun.

We spent the rest of the weekend discussing what album we’d do, given the chance to cover one in front of several thousand people.  I went all around in circles; Born to Run is a bit too obvious; Patsy Cline would be a fun one, and I know every word of Abba Gold.  Pearl Jam’s Ten was my version of the angry album, and I still carry a torch for Eddie Vedder.  We all thought Legend could be great.  I landed tentatively on Photographs and Memories, because I thought it would be a crowd pleaser, and I’d sincerely love belting out “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Roller Derby Queen” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.”  I haven’t made up my mind yet.  But I’ll be thinking about it till next year.

Maybe next time it’ll be Janis.

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