For bluegrass-country fans here in New England, Presidents’ Day weekend means Joe Val Weekend. The substitution is fine with me, as the elevation of the third weekend in February to just another Monday day off meant the nation quickly forgot about celebrating the birthdays of the Father of Our Country, George Washington (February 22nd), and the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). What we should do is make it Bluegrass Weekend all over the country, and start honoring our two greatest Presidents again on their actual birthdays. Hey, we could start next year by ‘broadcasting’ the Joe Val Festival over the Internet on Concert Window!
Fortunately for me and Dr Janie, the Joe Val Festival is practically next door at the Sheraton (‘The Castle’, as it’s known in our family) in Framingham, which also means I don’t have to take a Saturday off from the radio show to attend. I got to hear a fair number of the Main Stage bands, and take a lot of pictures. So here are a few of them, and minimal comments as well (I didn’t take notes, so no long reviews):
Friday I caught just a bit of the Berklee Bluegrass Amalgamation, all clearly accomplished successors to the first crops of Berklee bluegrass graduates now making waves in the Boston bluegrass scene, sounding like they knew how to play together, not just a mere ‘amalgamation’. Though I do wish the the instructors at Berklee would just put a single mic in front of a group, and let them figure out how to ‘work’ it. That’s how bluegrass got its original sound, making the individuals fit their vocals and instruments into that cohesive puzzle that makes a band.
I know the current fad is to line everybody up on stage, facing the audience, barely looking at each other. To my old-fashioned eyes and ears, it’s regrettable. One of the great joys of watching a band work a single mic is the the choreography and interplay that meld the virtuoso parts into a whole.
But enough pontificating. The Berklee picking was refreshing, and I was impressed with the singing of fiddler Josie Toney. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters are long New England fixtures, based in Connecticut. Amy’s ‘life partner’ (as they bill each other) is Roger Williams, the terrific Dobro® player who has shared the stage with Amy for many years, and before that with White Mountain Bluegrass and many other bands. Roger appeared on Hillbilly at Harvard back in the ‘70s, I think he said, with some of the younger Lillys. He really is the pre-eminent ‘resophonic guitar’ player in the region, a huge influence on generations of players, and was so honored at the Festival by the Boston Bluegrass Union, receiving their 2018 Heritage Award. Congratulations!
Amy Gallatin has a foot in the folk-music community, but I think it’s safe to say that Roger has moved her more in the country direction. Amy, Roger, and Stillwaters are equally at home with traditional country and bluegrass, still with some folk influences, and with Roger’s son J.D. Williams on mandolin and Eric Levinson on bass, put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. Always great to hear ‘Flame in My Heart’, a George Jones duet standard, at a bluegrass festival! [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For high-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
It really isn’t fair to do 55-year comparison photos. As my mother used to say, “You’re no spring chicken, either.” But Eddie Adcock has a new album out, Vintage Banjo Jam, released just last year, on Patuxent Music—new, but recorded in 1963! It was a group of banjo instrumentals, either Eddie originals or unique arrangements of others, recorded in Pete Kuykendall’s studio back when Eddie was playing with the Country Gentlemen. Eddie was already chafing at the bluegrass bit. By 1963, says his wife and subsequent musical partner Martha Adcock in the liner note,
[Eddie’s] uncontainable ethos tempted him to a wider market than bluegrass, and this project was cut in order to dangle it before Nashville producer/musician Chet Atkins’ nose. But when even that master marketer of pop and country was left scratching his head at the problems of the how-to, Eddie left that behind to entertain other dreams.
Interestingly, Eddie’s innovative 1963 style sounds almost traditional, compared with the later adventures of Bill Keith or Bela Fleck; it’s not ‘progressive’, nor ‘chromatic’, nor ‘newgrass’; it’s maybe closer to Don Reno (who before Red Smiley cut his musical teeth with Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith instead of Lester Flatt); it’s certainly ‘jazzy’, in a way that those of us who dig western swing will appreciate. The master tapes, rescued and carefully laid on shiny digital aluminum, sound fresh and original. I wanted to talk to Eddie about it, but I didn’t catch him between acts, and then he disappeared. As you can see from the photos, Eddie is on oxygen (for emphysema) and far from his younger self (the album cover was taken at a festival in 1966). But he could still banter, and sing, and play the banjo, and there were echos of his old almost rascally self, as I remember when I saw him with the Gents back in Berryville, VA in the early ‘60s.
With Eddie were Martha and the seemingly ageless Tom Gray, who treated us to some trademark melodic bass breaks, as well as Bluegrass 45 veteran mandolinist Akira Otsuka sitting in. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
David Davis said it had been ten years since he was at the Joe Val Festival. I thought it was more like five, but I remembered him fondly, and time just flies. The Warrior River Boys is a grown-up band playing traditional bluegrass-style country music, and they do it really well. David is a soft-spoken gentleman, a fine singer, and a solid, Monroe-style mandolin player. His bass player and duet partner Marty Hays has been with him for more than two decades. David is about to release an album featuring the music of Charlie Poole this spring on Rounder, and played several tunes from it in his Friday evening set. Not sure if all the audience knew who Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were, but HAH listeners do. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Saturday afternoon I got over to the Festival in time for Phil Leadbetter and the All-Stars of Bluegrass. I got to hear them rehearsing in the Green Room, and then on-stage. The All-Stars for this concert were the sweet-voiced Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley (playing bass guitar), Alan Bibey (mandolin), Jason Burleson on banjo, and Phil Leadbetter of course on Dobro. With Claire doing the majority of leads, it looked like an All-Star recreation of the Claire Lynch Band, though to my ear it lacked some of the focus of her own groups: the All Stars were pleasant, but not enthralling. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
I have been a Town Mountain fan ever since I saw them at a hotel-room showcase at the 2014 IBMA World of Bluegrass, so I was glad to see Robert Greer and company back for a second Joe Val Festival appearance. Town Mountain is a hot honky-tonk bluegrass band with plenty of edgy original songs and sharp pickin’. Boston-area resident Bobby Britt fiddles in the traditional style (he gave me a copy of his fine new album, called, mysteriously, alaya); another Berklee alumnus Jesse Langlais plays innovative, clever, punchy banjo; Zach Smith plays bass; and hard-drivin’ Monroe-style mandolinist Phil Barker also sings a mean, bluesy tenor. My only complaint is that Robert Greer’s fast-moving lyrics are hard to follow; left me thinking his mic wasn’t right for his voice. Many bands bring their own, possibly for that reason. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
One honky-tonk bluegrass band deserves another. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are circuit veterans (all worked with James King) who have forged a hot new act, working a single vocal mic in the old-fashioned way which, as I said earlier, highlights the band instead of the individuals, and also gets the crowd roaring. C. J. Lewandowski is a talented, lively mandolin player (with an album of his mentor Jim Orchard’s and his own tunes, called Ozark Mandolin) and a fine singer; he’s part of a rotating vocal trio with guitarist Josh ‘Jug’ Rinkel and banjoist Jerome Brown, along with manic head-bobbin’ bass player Jasper Lorentzen. They play originals in the three-chord country tradition (their Back to the Mountains CD features both bluegrass and country versions of Dallas Frazier’s “The Honky Tonk Downstairs”), and they have great fun doing it. Check out this set of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (from another festival):
On the Joe Val stage, the foursome were joined by our excellent local fiddler and rising star Laura Orshaw:
Despite the parade of national touring acts through the Main Stage at the Joe Val Festival, there are many attendees who prefer to spend their stay in the lobbies, alcoves, and hallways jamming with fellow pickers. You can wander around hearing all combinations of instruments, and all levels of performance, with all ages represented. No sooner do you leave one group than you catch the refrains of a familiar tune from another. I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I’d have liked taking it all in (as well as the regional-band Showcase Stage downstairs), because I wanted to hear the big names. But I did catch a little in the hallways, e.g.: [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
So I missed most of the Italian band Red Wine, but I did get a few quick shots:
I got back in time for old friend Greg Cahill and his always on-the-money (The) Special Consensus. Greg and company (Rick Faris, guitar; Nick Dumas, mandolin; Dan Eubanks, bass) can always be counted on to entertain, and even surprise. But it was the singing that got me this time; the current Special C band reminds me not a little of Doyle Lawson’s seamless Quicksilver recordings—they are that good. Greg keeps promising to come back to HAH, as he used to in the days when Chris Jones was in the band, and they played frequently at the Kinvara Pub in Allston. When was that—30 years ago? [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
It was getting late Saturday night, but I had to stay for IIIrd Tyme Out. I hadn’t seen Russell Moore for some time, when he and then banjo player Steve Dilling came down to HAH to plug an evening BBU show. Steve is no longer with IIIrd Tyme Out, but ace mandolinist Wayne Benson is (an essential part of their signature ‘John and Mary’, now an inevitable encore), joined by Justen Haynes, fiddle; Keith McKinnon, banjo; and Jerry Cole, bass. Russell, of course, one of bluegrass-country’s finest male singers for many years, was in good voice, and their show was worth the wait. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Sunday morning dawned bright and snowy, after an overnight Nor’easter that coated every limb and branch with frosting. We got to the festival, with grandkids in tow, in time for The Gibson Brothers. We had seen them just the year before, at a BBU show in Lexington, so I didn’t expect much new. But Eric and Leigh always manage to surpass expectations. Sitting on the floor by the first row of seats (to take pictures) helped to draw me and the kids into the gentle on-stage rivalry that leavens the stunning musicianship of these two brothers from northern New York (where Dr Janie is from). Besides Eric on banjo and Leigh on guitar, we were treated to long-time bandmates Clayton Campbell, fiddle; Mike Barber, bass; and the more recent member, Jesse Brock, mandolin (who despite his lofty ranking among mandolinists, fits right in the Gibson Brothers Band with the clarity and musicality of his playing). [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Bonus pic: During the Gibson Brothers set I found myself on the floor taking photos next to Tara Linhardt, who I discovered was freelancing for Bluegrass Today. She, it turns out, is a mandolin player, and back in the Green Room, who do I see her chatting with, but Jesse Brock:
The house remained full for nominal headliners Hot Rize, reunited after retiring (sans the late Charles Sawtelle, replaced by ace guitarist Bryan Sutton): always youthful-looking Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle), Nick Forster (bass), and Pete Wernick (‘Dr Banjo’), joined mid-set of course by Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers (Wendell Mercantile, Waldo Otto, and Swade). Wendell plays the only guitar with a fringe I’ve ever seen; they are actually a pretty good country band, and belie their comic intentions by occasionally playing a serious honky-tonk song (I forget now; might have been ‘The Window Up Above’). Tim gave me a copy of his lovely new album of West Virginia music, Where the River Meets the Road, written or played by WV folks, including Tim himself, originally from Wheeling, which I’ve been playing on HAH. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
We hung around after Hot Rize left the stage, grabbed something to eat, and headed downstairs for the aptly-named Joe Val Wind-up Hoe-Down, featuring no bluegrass at all! The delightful Foghorn Stringband (Caleb Klauder, Reeb Willms, Nadine Landry, Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind) held forth for a good hour and a half, playing old-time string-band and country tunes (with a little Cajun thrown in), followed by the Beantown Buckaroos, led by Art Schatz on fiddle, playing western swing and honky-tonk country. We couldn’t stay for more than a few minutes of the BBs, but granddaughter Aviva had a fine time dancing to the Foghorns. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
All told, another sterling event from the Boston Bluegrass Union, who by now accomplish this takeover of the Sheraton every February with such aplomb that we mere attendees cannot imagine how much behind-the-scenes work go into it. Congratulations once again! /CL