Hillside Album Hour Secrets Revealed
The Hillside Stage debuted in 1994 becoming the tenth stage at MerleFest. Today this stage proudly has the reputation of holding each year's best kept MerleFest secret since the creation of Hillside Album Hour.
Classic rock entered the MerleFest scene in 2006 when singer, guitarist and song¬writer Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, drew one of the most spirited MerleFest crowds ever as he performed with The Waybacks on several Dead classics on Friday afternoon. Then on Saturday afternoon at the Hillside Stage, The Waybacks were joined again by Weir along with Sam Bush, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. They received an incredibly enthusiastic response from the crowd, who literally demanded an encore after the set was past its scheduled end.
"The reception the band received that day, in many ways, set the tone for what would happen at Hillside a couple of years later," says Michael Nash, manager of The Waybacks.
More than ever MerleFest 2006 represented the evolution and connectedness of musical styles that define the festival. This just goes to show that you never know what you'll hear during those spontane-ous, unrehearsed "MerleFest Moments" that create never-ending "MerleFest Memories."
At MerleFest 2008, The Waybacks were asked to host a Saturday afternoon jam at the Hillside Stage, featuring an array of artists that included John Cowan, Pete Wernick, The Wilders, Tom Ball and more.
"Rather than opt for a standard approach, we decided we wanted to do something a bit more adventurous," Nash adds. "James came up with the idea of playing a classic rock album in its entirety, filtered through bluegrass instrumentation, and giving roles to all the players involved. The result was Led Zeppelin II, performed on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, Dobro, acoustic guitar, upright bass, harmonica and drums. In effect, that was the first Hillside Album Hour and it was so fresh, so much fun, and so well received that MerleFest asked us to do it again the following year."
"Truth is," Waybacks guitarist James Nash (no relation to Michael, by the way) says, "MerleFest really inspired the Album Hour, because this festival fosters the kind of creative environment that encourages musicians to have a crazy idea like going out and covering a Zeppelin record on all acoustic instruments. On the one hand, that first Album Hour was a whimsical, what-the-heck-are-we-thinking off-the-wall thing to do... but on the other hand, every musician on that stage poured heart and soul into that show. And MerleFest attracts the kind of music lovers who pick up on that, who recognize when the folks on stage are really feeling it, really putting themselves out there. I think that's what lit people up about that first Album Hour, and I think that's why people keep coming back to support this event year after year."
On Saturday evening at MerleFest 2009, the highly anticipated Hillside Album Hour was again hosted by The Waybacks and featured the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers with Emmylou Harris turning in a surprise performance of "Wild Horses." Also joining The Waybacks were Sam Bush on electric guitar, Rob Ickes on Dobro, and lead singer John Cowan. The hillside was packed with delighted music fans who gathered to find out what album would be featured, which is always a closely held secret until the show begins.
"Selecting an album each year is always both a fun and challenging process," Michael says. "Fans will make literally hundreds of suggestions. And of course we have a number of classics on our list. The truth is that a great album doesn't necessarily translate into a great album to perform live onstage. So, we tend to bat things around until everyone agrees on something that they connect with emotionally and feel they can represent and interpret well in performance.
"Once we do decide on something, we begin to drop hints in regular intervals leading up to the show. As the years have gone by, we've found that we've had to make those harder and harder, as there are a lot of pretty sharp Album Hour fans out there. Seeing the creativity of their responses based on some pretty cryptic clues is a blast. We love how people have taken to the adventure."
MerleFest 2010 welcomed the third annual Hillside Album Hour. On Saturday, a sea of fans gathered on the hillside to learn what this year would bring. The Waybacks did not disappoint, playing every song on The Beatles' classic Abbey Road as fans literally sang along to every word. Joining The Waybacks were Sarah Dugas, Shannon Whitworth, Byron House, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale and Elvis Costello. All told, an incredibly ambitious effort.
"It's been a total thrill seeing Album Hour turn into such a big party at MerleFest!" says James. "When we first played the Zep album, I was thinking about trying to make a good show, nothing more. Had absolutely no idea it would be more than one fun hour on the Hillside. The way the MerleFest community has supported this event, helped it grow into a multi-year running tradition... it's hard to express how much that means to us Waybacks. How welcome it makes us feel to keep coming back year after year."
The Waybacks hosted the fourth consecutive Hillside Album Hour in 2011 by playing the Allman Brothers' classic recording Eat a Peach in its entirety, along with a version of "Whipping Post" for good measure. Joining them were their good pals Joan Osborne, John R. Burr, Larry Atamanuik and The Wailin' Jennys.
The band continued the Hillside Album Hour tradition in 2012 by delivering a stellar rendition of Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix. Reminiscent of Hendrix, James Nash jokingly attempted to light fire to his guitar while performing "Third Stone from the Sun." Luckily security convinced him to stick with delivering one of the most amazing performances of the festival. The Waybacks were joined by Sara Dugas, Jens Kruger, Susan Tedeschi, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, Kym Warner and Christian Dugas for that performance. This event, like the Album Hours before it, drew one of the largest crowds ever gathered on the hillside.
"MerleFest is one of the first festivals our band ever played, and it's such a one-of-a-kind musical extravaganza in so many ways," says James. "And, really, that's the ongoing challenge for us as we head into the sixth Album Hour and hopefully beyond: to keep that honesty, that integrity, to do our best to put together a show that channels the enthusiasm that attracted all of us to these classic albums in the first place. If we can capture some of that spark, we know it'll be a great afternoon!"
When asked if The Waybacks could offer any clues about Hillside Album Hour 2013, Michael responded, "Yes. I'll tell you a big secret . . . you're not going to want to miss it. Trust me."
The Waybacks will return with yet another coveted secret to unveil at Hillside Album Hour 2013, scheduled for Saturday, April 27. And they've got a double dose of wonderful planned for fans at MerleFest 2013. Check stage schedules! You don't want to miss it!