Another Excellent Joe Val Festival!

NOTE: For higher-resolution versions of the photographs, go to Flickr, HERE. (They won’t be super high, because with my Rebel T2i-Tamron 18-270 combination, I still needed to shoot at 3200 ISO, but they will be better than the ones that are reduced here for space.)

Yes, it was festival time once again for the Boston Bluegrass Union.  I got over Friday evening in time to catch a little of the much-talked-about Mile Twelve (Evan Murphy, guitar; Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, fiddle; Nate Sabat, bass; Catherine [BB] Bowness, banjo; and newcomer David Benedict, mandolin).  While not all Berklee grads, they all bear the stamp of young, Boston-based virtuosi.  I enjoyed the part of their set I heard, and though found it a little on the folky side, they can certainly can handle the country sound of bluegrass.  Here’s a video from an earlier Club Passim gig (before mandolin player David Benedict joined):

img_1114_smOf course, I had packed up my camera, with an extra battery—and left it on the table at home.  I remembered it on the way across the parking lot to the Sheraton.  Unlike previous years of bitter cold, or blowing snow, this was a pleasantly mild weekend, but I elected to proceed, thinking that maybe I could use my iPhone.  But shooting from the audience, it was a washout, literally (see example at right).  Oh well.

The next band was new to me, but turned out to be a real treat: Jeff Scroggins and Colorado.  Change the vowel, and you realize that Jeff could be ‘Scruggins’, and that would be apropos, as he is a terrific banjo player.  Whether for this event or not, but he let his very long hair down, to the point where you wondered how he could see his instrument, but then he probably didn’t need to.  His son Tristan is probably the most energetic mandolin player I’ve ever seen; he seemed to be bouncing up and down like one of those balloons on a string, yet somehow playing forceful but pointed (and I imagine difficult) mandolin lines.  The fiddler, an Arizona State Champion named Ellie Hakanson was no slouch either, complementing Tristan and Jeff—and the flat-picking guitar work of Greg Blake, who is (not incidentally) a fine lead singer (he gave me a copy of his own album, which I heartily recommend) .  The bass player was a fill-in, and I didn’t catch her name, but she propelled the entertaining tempo of the band (even the slow songs) well.   These folks wowed the audience with sheer energy and musicianship.

Again, no camera, so I’ll substitute a YouTube video that that’ll give you a sense of how much fun this band is:

Now I’m a fan of Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, as those of you who listen to HAH know well, but I have to admit that after JS&C they were a bit of mullinsfest17an anticlimax.   Joe is a broadcaster himself (he owns a network of three radio stations in SW Ohio) and was in his best radio presentation voice for the audience.  His show was a tutorial in bluegrass history, and the songs impeccably done.  Before the show I talked briefly with Joe; he remembered appearing on HAH some years before—I think it was with Dudley Connell and James King, when they had just recorded one of the Longview ‘supergroup’ albums for Rounder.  Joe told me that he puts on an indoor festival of his own, like the JVF, in a convention center in Wilmington, Ohio.  Here’s the flyer, from the Radio Ramblers website:

I couldn’t stay Friday night to hear Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, starting at 10:55 PM; have to get up Saturday morning for this radio show. . .

But I got back Saturday evening in time for a little of Flashback, mid-set.  I recognized Don Rigsby, but it took a while before I realized this was a ‘supergroup’; besides Don on mandolin, there was Phil Leadbetter on resonator guitar (which I call a ‘Dobro’ even when it isn’t), Richard Bennett on guitar and singing leads (not the Nashville guitarist and producer Richard Bennett), Curt Chapman on bass, and Stuart Wyrick on banjo.  Turns out they were all, except Stuart, veterans of J. D. Crowe and the New South, who had reunited as “The Flashback Band” in 1995, winning a Grammy, and now (minus J. D.) are rejuvenating that name.  This time, I had my camera, so here are some photos (click to enlarge):


Unfortunately, I got the impression they were going through the motions, no pizzazz.  Whether they were resting on their laurels, or just tired from festival activities, I can’t say, but after a while I gave up and headed out to sample some of the pickers jamming in the hallways and alcoves, who while not past masters were clearly having a lot more fun. Here are some (apologies for not getting names to go with the photos; click to enlarge):


Maybe having two shows, afternoon and evening, is wearying, but The Grascals who followed Flashback also seemed a little tired.  Or maybe the sound wasn’t punchy enough.  They had a lot more energy than Flashback, though, and the crowd was enthusiastic.  The new co-lead singer (with Terry Eldredge), John Bryan, is a worthy successor to Jamie Johnson, and the vocals and instrumental work are jes’ fine.  I was happy to hear them do “Me and John and Paul,” the moving Harley Allen song from their first album, and I even put up with “Last Train to Clarksville.”  The other Grascals are Danny Roberts, mandolin; Terry Smith, bass; Kristin Scott Benson, banjo; and Adam Haynes, fiddle.  Some photos (click to enlarge):


Don’t know why, but Doyle Lawson’s headline band spent a long time fiddling with the sound before their set, and the result was much improved; everything popped out, but without being overwhelming.  Doyle is like Del: age does not seem to diminish his presence or his performance, and Doyle always looks splendid in his Grand Ol’ Opry-style duds.  The personnel of his band changes regularly, but somehow he always manages to find singers who are a cut above the usual, and whose instrumental skills are as well.  Doyle has feet in both the bluegrass and gospel circuits, and that doubtless helps recruitment.  The current band: Josh Swift, Dobro; Joe Dean, banjo; Dustin Pyrtle, guitar; Eli Johnston, bass; Stephen Burwell, fiddle.  The sound of Quicksilver remains amazingly consistent over the three decades, and it is always a rare treat to hear them.  Their 90-minute set ran well past midnight, and my tired guests had spent all day on the train up from Richmond, but we stayed to the end; it was worth it.  Here are some pics (click to enlarge):

Sunday afternoon I had to get the Festival by 12:30 to see Danny Paisley and The Southern Grass.  I was not disappointed.  I’ve seen Danny now and again for years, since he was a youngster with his dad Bob, but on this occasion he was just terrific.  Maybe it was the IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year award last Fall, but his singing was clearer and more powerful than I had ever heard it, especially in the ballads, which were especially moving.  I can’t recall hearing more soulful singing since the now unhappily-late James King was at the Festival a couple of years ago.  I said then, to anyone who would listen, “This is the real thing.”  So is Danny.  There’s still the authentic Galax sound that the Paisleys and the Lundys carried with them to Delaware at the founding of the Southern Mountain Boys, later the Southern Grass.  Danny has T. J. Lundy back playing mountain-bluegrass fiddle; his young son Ryan playing a solid, inventive mandolin; Eric Troutman on bass and high tenor; and Mark Delaney on banjo (I play Mark’s own album Sidecar [Patuxent Music, 2008] a lot; with Danny, Mark plays a straight-ahead traditional style, but with inventive winks behind vocals and on breaks).  My Festival favorite band this year (click to enlarge):

Becky Buller emailed me about doing a ‘phoner’ (radio talk for a telephone interview), but we’re not set up for it in Studio BC, where HAH originates; however, Gerry Katz sent along a promotional announcement for the Festival, which I was happy to play (holding my iPhone up to the mic—don’t ask), and Becky sent along a copy of her 2014 album, ‘Tween Earth and Sky (Dark Shadow, 2014), which I had never heard and quickly got on the air.  So I was looking forward to seeing her in person (much taller than I expected!), and hearing this IBMA multiple-award winner (Songwriter, Fiddler, Female Vocalist) live.  I was not disappointed.  The band features guitarist-singer Daniel Boner, doing a lot of duets with Becky (Dan is the Director of the East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, but apparently finds time to tour with The Becky Buller Band—not a bad gig!); mandolinist Nate Lee; banjo picker Ned Luberecki (who teaches banjo on SirusXM radio!); and on bass, Daniel Hardin, who also works at the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lunchburg, TN—another good gig, I guess).  This is a modern bluegrass band with a traditional bent, playing a lot of originals, especially Becky’s own.  They closed with the three-fiddle tour-de-force, setting lyrics to Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Southern Flavor” (Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and Laura Orshaw joined Becky on fiddles for this one).  Pics (click to enlarge):

Blue Highway is. . .  Blue Highway.  Once I used to think they were too modern for HAH, but by this point ‘tradition’ has encompassed them as well, and they have helped it along with more three-chord tunes.  Their latest Rounder album (have they ever been on another label?), Original Traditional, cements that impression with new songs in an older vein.  The band has been together for more than twenty years, with only one change: Gaven Largent replaced Rob Ickes on Dobro in 2015; except for being markedly younger, he fits right in musically.  Wayne Taylor (bass) was sidelined for a while with heart trouble and major surgery, but has emerged on stage singing as wonderfully as ever.  Wayne may be the strongest force on Blue Highway for traditional country music, bluegrass-style—just get a copy of It’s About Time (from WayneTaylorBluegrass.com)—and he anchors the vocal trios, standing right in the center.  Jason Burleson plays banjo; he took a break from Blue Highway for a couple of years (1998-2000) when Tom Adams filled in, but otherwise shares the ‘original’ honors with Tim Stafford (guitar), and Shawn Lane (mandolin).  No fiddle in the band, but the Dobro makes up for it.  Always an entertaining and vital show (click to enlarge):


At some point, a few years ago, the BBU decided to reverse the usual festival custom of having things wind down Sunday, as people packed up and left.  Having an indoor festival in February, with no campers, may have helped them realize that a strong Sunday afternoon could be a huge audience pleaser.  And it is!  As if Danny Paisley, Becky Buller, and Blue Highway weren’t enough, Stan Zdonick and company brought in two-time IBMA Entertainers of the Year, Lester and Earl revivalists, The Earls of Leicester.  Not to my surprise, they packed the house.

The Earls of Leicester are not The Foggy Mountain Boys.  I saw Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and all The Foggy Mountain Boys, along with Don Reno and Red Smiley (!), in a high-school gymnasium in North Carolina in the early ‘60s; I saw them again in Boston, maybe in Jordan Hall.  The Earls’ personalities are different, there are modern affectations that slip in, they are slicker pickers, they don’t have a comic bassman, and Jerry Douglas is way too tall to be Josh Graves.  But by golly, you can close your eyes, and they take you back.  You can open your eyes, and there they are, mostly around one mic, wearing hats and string ties, and you’re still back there.  But really, it’s the songs: “Ninety minutes of Flatt and Scruggs, only Flatt and Scruggs, no ‘Rocky Top’,” introduced Jerry Douglas.  I suppose half of the audience had heard a lot of the songs, from bluegrass compilations, and the aspiring pickers probably had followed along with many of them on CDs, but I’ll bet few could remember a Flatt and Scruggs concert, and this was as close as they’ll ever get to one.  The Earls of Leicester don’t ‘play’ the original members of the band, but they do play their music, and faithfully, too.

Notably, Paul Warren’s son Johnny fits right into his father’s shoes.  But I must confess to not knowing about him.  Turns out Johnny Warren followed his father’s advice,

“My dad died in 1978, but his advice to me was, ‘Do music as a hobby and find something where you can stay home with your family.’ That’s the only thing he missed, out there being gone for months at a time. And he didn’t want me to do that.” (from PGA.com)

and became a golf pro and teacher.  But he fiddles and works with the band like he’s been doing it full-time all his life.  Turns out he’s kept playing, and in fact has three albums of fiddle tunes (two are tributes to his father) out with Charlie Cushman, who superbly plays the (musical) role of Earl Scruggs with the Earls.  The role of Lester Flatt is taken by one of the best musicians ever to grace Nashville, singer-songwriter-guitarist Shawn Camp, accomplished at everything from commercial country to bluegrass, working with Guy Clark in between.  Shawn twists his mouth a little and sings enough like Lester to fit the role, without attempting a serious impersonation.  He’s not quite as mellow and laconic a singer as Lester was, but he’s close enough.  Barry Bales on bass does not resemble Jake Tullock, but he got the rhythm right, as far as I could tell, and joins in the quartet singing.  The only major gap might be Curly Seckler, whose distinctive vocal harmonies added so much to the unique sound of the Foggy Mountain Boys.  The Earls have used different mandolin players to plug that gap, and here it was Ashby Frank, who filled in admirably.


It was great fun hearing all those F&S songs again.  It was a delightful weekend.  Wished there had been time to take in the Showcase Stage bands, though; were they recorded?

Congratulations to all the folks at the Boston Bluegrass Union for once again managing one of the premier bluegrass festivals in the country.  I know it is a lot of work, but to those of us who just show up to be entertained, it seems effortless—which means you’re all doing it right. /CL

NOTE: For higher-resolution versions of the photographs, go to Flickr, HERE. (They won’t be super high, because with my Rebel T2i-Tamron 18-270 combination, I still needed to shoot at 3200 ISO, but they will be better than the ones that are reduced here for space.)

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