Friday, August 18, 2017

Pemi Valley Friday & Saturday 2017 - Review

The Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival, by running from Wednesday through Saturday, made several necessary changes that turn out to provide a bang-up festival which began with a promising band contest and one touring band and ended with a monster evening of three wonderful and diverse bluegrass bands. Sunday at bluegrass festivals often turns into a day when, given good weather, people hang around for a few extra hours, attend the Sunday morning gospel jam and sing, support the kids academy, and listen to a couple of local bands while they laze in the sun. By starting with the band contest, people could arrive early, set up, and wander down to the stage area when they were ready. Then, on Sunday, tired after a fine show and plenty of jamming, could leave in a leisurely fashion and take it easy. Despite threatening weather on Friday and a deluge on Saturday, the weekend worked out well and people headed home with a sense that the weekend had been a huge success.  

Merrimack Valley Bluegrass

The Merrimack River is a major river flowing through industrial towns of Manchester and Nashua in New Hampshire and Lowell in Massachusetts, places where rural people came to work in urban mills from after the Civil War until the 1960's as the mills moved south. These were nurturing places for bluegrass to take root. The band plays traditional and contemporary music at festivals and other events in central New England.

Edmond Boudreau

Marilyn Gillis

Al Marotta

Greg Algieri

Ben Silver


Monadnock is a name for an isolated hill or rock that rises out of a generally flat plain. We live in the shadow of Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire. On their web site, the band, Monadnock offers a more humorous, and honest, account of how they chose such a name.  I suppose that Monadnock, the band, stands alone as a fine band. Seriously good entertainment. 

Craig Engel

Keith Hillyard

Craig Engel & Sandy Cormier

Elise LaFlamme

Roland Young

Bob Pope

Injured Gary Hutchinson & Dave Shaw

Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters

Amy Gallatin is a seasoned performer who brings her origins in the south, her experience as a singer at dude ranches in the west, and her years in New England to her work. Along with Amy's life and musical partner, Dobro master Roger Williams, Stillwaters is entertaining, lively, and just salty enough to add flavor to its well rounded, diverse shows. Rogers son, J.D. Williams has gone from being a scared kid on the stage to a seasoned performer with a Berkely degree. John Urbanek provides the steady beat he's known for. We're always glad to see this band in the lineup at bluegrass festivals, and they deserve a wider audience. 

Amy Gallatin

Roger Williams & John Urbanek

John Urbanek

J.D. Williams

Roger Williams & Amy Gallatin

The Boxcars

The Boxcars feature two of bluegrass music's most respected and awarded instrumentalists. Adam Steffey has won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award eleven times. His precise style and fast picking has been emulated by a generation of young pickers. Ron Stewart has won both the banjo player of the year and the fiddle player of the year, a rare double, while being nominated multiple times on each instrument. Keith Garrett, whose full-time job is teaching high school chemistry, is noted for both his song writing and lead singing. The band is business-like, focusing on the songs and its renditions, using both a wide variety of traditional music and featuring Keith's often lugubrious and well-rendered songs. 

Adam Steffey

Ron Stewart

Keith Garrett

Harold Nixon

Gary Hultman

Agent Jim Roe in Front of One of His Bands - The Boxcars

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Bluegrass Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson has been a featured player in major bands for over fifty years, since first playing professionally with Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys in the early sixties. Along the way he played with J.D. Crowe and the New South and the Country Gentlemen. He formed his own band, which became Quicksilver, in 1979 and the rest is history. The band is known for its elegant combination of gospel music and highly entertaining,  usually fast-paced bluegrass. Over the years, so many musicians have been members of this band on their way to forming their own bands that it has become known as Doyle Lawson's school of bluegrass. The band is always disciplined and tuneful, a headliner with a large following. Josh Swift has been nominated for Dobro player of the year several times and this year may manage to break through this category long dominated by Jerry Douglass and Rob Ickes. At Pemi Valley, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver performed one long set to close Friday night. 

Doyle Lawson

Josh Swift

Eli Johnston

Joe Dean

Steven Burrell

Doyle Lawson & Eli Johnston


By turning Saturday into a grand finalie of a four day festival, promoters Craig Engel and Steve Abdu raised the ante and came through with a strong selection of three closing bands as well as excellent regional bands leading up to the closing of the evening with a single long set by the Del McCoury Band. Even though the sun barely made an appearance and the day was punctuated by rain, hurting the day attendance so many festivals rely upon, the end result was an artistic success that exceeded the expectations of the enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd. Let's look at the day.

NewFound Grass

NewFound Grass is the host band of this festival, with both Craig Engel and Steve Abdu playing in it. The band's music represents a range of eras and interests as does its composition. Dave Shaw, who plays with many bands in New England, is a serious student of early country and bluegrass music as well as accomplished on all the instruments in a bluegrass band. Ron Swisher varies his skillful banjo play to the demands of the music. Engel and Abdu, who are the promoters of this fine festival, have eclectic musical interests ranging through folk music, rock and roll, and bluegrass all of which represent their taste and their experience. This same eclecticism has driven the quality of this festival to the top of New England festivals. 

Steve Abdu

Craig Engel

Ron Swisher

Dave Shaw

Off and On...Rain!

Southern Rail

Southern Rail has been a standout regional band in New England for a generation, having released twelve CD's. Particularly noted for their very tight harmony singing and disciplined sound in both secular and gospel music, they are always a pleasure to see and hear.

Jim Muller

Sharon Horovitch

Rich Stillman

John Tibert

Rich Stillman & Jim Muller

Gibson Brothers' Meet and Greet

The Gibson Brothers have one of the strongest fan bases in bluegrass. Their workshops are always well attended by fans, many of whom have known and followed them since they were barely out of their teen years, particularly here in New England. A Gibson Brothers workshop always features thoughtful questions from the audience, work-shopping of new unperformed and unrecorded songs, and the banter that has endeared them to so many. It's at gatherings like this one where many people first heard They Called It Music, One Rain Drop, Something Coming to Me and many other songs that have become Gibson Brothers classics and jam standards. 

Leigh Gibson

Eric Gibson

Mike Barber

Pemi Valley Kids Academy

The Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band led off the closing of the festival by three bands from three eras featuring three sets of brothers that I've written about at greater length here. This band is the most exciting band to come along in some years. It's music is elegant, clean, and expert. Song selection divided between classic bluegrass, inventive bluegrass covers of classic rock, and thought provoking, tuneful songs written within the band create a musical environment that captures audiences right from the start and never lets go. It's hard to overstate how excellent the band is or how influential it could become.

George Clements

Patrick M'Gonigle

Charles Clements

Gabe Hirshfeld

Matt Witler

Bruce & Kelly Stockwell

Sandy Hillyard & Kelly Burke
Invaluable Volunteer Coordinators

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers have been nominated for seven IBMA awards in six categories. Here's an indication of the esteem in which they hold each other. Both Eric and Leigh are nominated as Male Vocalist of the Year. When the nominations were released, Eric almost immediately posted "Vote for Leigh!" on Facebook. This was clearly NOT a case of strategic voting. Rather it indicated in public an element of respect and love that people who know the brothers well have realized for years. Eric truly believes that Leigh deserves the award and doesn't want votes wasted on him. This is also not a case of the high school student council nominee who refuses to vote for himself, but a plea for excellence. In all elements of bandsmanship, musicality, song-writing and selection, and personality, the Gibson Brothers are one of the very best bands in the nation. 

Eric & Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Jesse Brock

Eric & Leigh

The Del McCoury Band

The Del McCoury Band has set a standard for thoughtful traditionalism. Del's credentials are impeccable, a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe, touring with his brother Jerry as The Dixie Pals, and with his sons as one of the most awarded and beloved bands in bluegrass history. This Hall of Fame member has done it all, and done it better. While playing the classics and singing his signature high lonesome tenor, he has been willing to play with in incredibly diverse set of bands playing other music. He's also, probably, the most photogenic artist in all music. Three members of his bands, sons Ronnie and Robbie, as well as fiddler Jason Carter have been named as instrumentalist of the year on his own instrument. Only Alan Bartram has been overlooked in the instrument category, where he certainly stands among the best. This is simply a great band!

Del McCoury

Ron McCoury

Rob McCoury

Jason Carter

Alan Bartram

The McCoury Brothers

Del McCoury

 Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival was a superbly designed festival featuring the best of national and regional bands in a beautiful setting. It successfully placed itself into the top level of New England, and, perhaps, national bluegrass festivals on this, its twenty-fifth anniversary. Of particular note was its insistence on not becoming an all-star festival, but in maintaining and celebrating balance as well as prominence without sacrificing excellence. Can't wait 'til next year!

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