The traffic was brutal already and I was a little late to pick up Sarah at the 3:47 train at NoBillerica on a Friday night, June 20th. The traffic continuing North on 495 was stopped, and so we went the other way through Nashua and Manchester and then finally Concord, through heavier traffic than I've ever seen in NH. We finally got off the highway on routes 3 and 11 toward Winnepesaukee and it was bike week in New Hampshire!
What could we do? We crawled through traffic on a beautiful day, the last day of Spring, admired the bikes and the scene successfully, and finally made it up over the rise and down the slope towards Gilford, with the mountains outlining the background against the blue early-evening sky. We pulled into the surprisingly un-full parking lot, set up our chairs, and had some beers and sandwiches while we waited for the Willie Nelson at Meadowbrook concert to start! The crowd was right behind us of course and the lot soon filled up.
After a bit we moseyed into the venue, looked at the hats for sale, grabbed a beer, watched the drone flying around, and then made out way to our excellent 14th row center seats during Kacey Musgraves's first song.
Kacey was great, and I was very impressed by her band. The sound could have been louder for all of the acts to me, and this was particularly true for the opener. But she played a lot of her hits (including Follow Your Arrow and Blowin' Smoke and of course the trailer park song) and mixed in some nice random country-folk, while her note-perfect band performed excellently. In fact, that's the first word I would use to describe the whole night, "perfect." None of the acts got a note wrong all night, but this was not a weak effort; they all performed perfectly while playing and singing aggressively as well. There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments.
The roadies were rushing the opening act through their paces, thrusting the tuned instruments for the next song into their hands as soon as they hit the closing note of the last song. One of the jaw-dropping moments (though hokey to some degree) was when Kacey and her band sang the a cappella encore, Happy Trails. Besides Kacey (who was sporting print leggings), they all had quasi-Nudie suits on and for the encore they started the lights going on them! Luckily, no one was electrocuted.
Time for another beer and a quick tour around the venue, which I hadn't really done before. I went way up to the lawn section and it wasn't full at all, though the amphitheater itself was packed. There were some very nice spots on the lawn and it could be a lot of fun for a mellow concert with some friends. Made it back to my seat, and then AK&US came out and instantly the night became very un-mellow as we approached bluegrass heaven.
This was the classic lineup or course: Alison, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block, and Barry Bales. Their setlist had few surprises and there weren't any real cases of one of the performers dominating, but I have to say it was one of the best evenings of bluegrass I've ever seen. I can't think of a better one.
They started off a bit slow, and then Dan stepped up and sang Peter Rowan's Dust Bowl Children and we all just went nuts. This was a knowledgeable crowd, up front at least, and we all realized what an incredible performance we were seeing. Besides the perfect vocals, Alison was routinely incredible on fiddle, Jerry was beyond world-class on dobro, Dan was miked perfectly on guitar, Barry was booming with the bluegrass bull fiddle, and Ron switched seamlessly between his leads on guitar and banjo. This was great, great stuff.
If I could have written my dream AK&US setlist I would have picked a few other songs, but this was pretty good. The one unexpected song of the night was actually one of the best, Sawing On the Strings, which was again, perfect. Besides Dust Bowl, Dan sang The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn (one of the best of the night), and the totally expected Man Of Constant Sorrow. Alison did the expected sweet songs like Let Me Touch You For a While and Baby Now That I've Found You, but also did some grittier songs like The Lucky One and Paper Airplane. They also did a great, foot-stomping Choctaw Hayride featuring some hot fiddle. Again, this may seem like a hackneyed setlist but My God you should have been there, it was awesome.
When they reached the end of their set they stood aside and bowed while the roadies hurriedly re-arranged the stage for the encore. Then they came out and did 5 more perfect songs. No shit.
Well, it was time for one last trip to the beer tent and then to settle down for Willie. He came out with his son Lukas on guitar, another son on percussion (along with another percussionist), his "little sister" Bobbie on piano, a bassist, and some other instrumentation from time to time. But no one in the crowd noticed. Willie was beyond riveting, dominant, he was the show.
They opened with Whiskey River, and did not fucking stop all night. Willie did some of the soul-wrenching songs I most wanted to hear, but then followed those up so quickly with another incredible song from his long career that we didn't even have time to wring out our handkerchiefs! I'm still trying to recover from his going in one measure from Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away into Crazy!?!?!
And the dominant sound of the night was not his voice, but his guitar. He motioned with his head to Lukas to keep it down when he tried to step up the pace, and he let Bobbie take over short parts of the songs with her honky-tonk piano, but then he would strum a few chords and pick a lead that carried us all away. I couldn't imagine that an 81-year old guy could have such a quick left hand, like he was a combination of Johnnie Winter and Jimi Hendrix playing the country blues.
Willie got a little tired towards the end of the night and wasn't exactly moving quickly as he threw headbands into the crowd and thanked people for their drunken adulation. But he finished up strong and then called everybody (and I mean everybody) out for Will the Circle Be Unbroken and then Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. It was just a perfect night.
Got back to the car and waited until the jam started moving before Sarah got behind the wheel and drove back to Massachusetts. Meadowbrook is not exactly close, but can be a lot of fun, especially when seeing a concert like the ones we've seen there recently.