Monday, February 21, 2011

Joe Val Sunday & Final Assessment

Throughout the exciting and stimulating three days of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, sponsored by the Boston Bluegrass Union, I was frequently reminded of those wonderful summer camp reunions I used to attend during Christmas break when I was a kid.  Friends from camp I hadn't seen since summer or, sometimes, for many years would come back to the gymnasium of a school on Central Park West in New York City for a day-long reunion. The day always resonated with warm greetings, screams of recognition, hugs, and good talks.  Add great music from the stages, in the workshops, and in every nook and cranny the hallways could provide and you have Joe Val, perhaps the strongest indoor festival we've ever attended, and certainly one of the best overall.

The Bluegrass Gospel Project
The Bluegrass Gospel Project began as a one shot gospel show for First Night in Burlington, VT about ten years ago.  Their music uses a range of tunes from a variety of gospel music traditions in an honest presentation.  They give festivals an excellent opportunity to open a Sunday program while also performing in churches and community concert series.  They're worth and good look.  

Kirk Lord, Gene White, Jr., Steve Light

Jim DiSabito, Colby Creham, Paul Miller

Holding a festival on the weekend of President's day allows a Sunday program lasting a whole day.  Thus, a festival whose music begins after work on Friday can offer a comprehensive program.  Joe Val uses its site very well, taking advantage of the spaces a moderate sized convention facility provides.  The banquet hall, meeting rooms, hallways, other public spaces are all fully used, comfortable for a crowd of somewhere around 1000 people.  The hotel permits people staying there to bring coolers, so many attendees were able to provide themselves with food and drink, reducing cost and adding to the sense of being at an open event.  Joe Val is a fan friendly and a performer friendly event.

The Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson finally won some of the recognition due him when he won an IBMA award for Recorded Event of the Year.  He's been a hard working solid performer on the road for over twenty years.  His signature tenor voice and able Monroe style mandolin play are always well-crafted and thoughtfully presented. Kenny Ingram has been a huge addition to his band on banjo, returning to singing for the first time in years.  Ira Gitlin, director of the Joe Val Kid's Academy, especially commented on the strong guitar work filled with solid content of Kevin Richardson. Jim Stewart has recently joined the band on bass, making a solid contribution.

 Kenny Ingram

Kevin Richardson

Danny Stewart, Jr.

 The Joe Val lineup offers performers selected from the best New England has to offer as well as an excellent and varied assortment of national bands. Traditional bands like Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Joe Mullin & the Radio Ramblers, and the Larry Stephenson band provided connections to the sounds of the originators. Transitional bands like The Boxcars and The Grascals connected to the origins of bluegrass while offering new and original work.  Tony Trischka & Territory and  Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen suggested top knotch directions we might be looking for the best of bluegrass to head.

Robin & Linda Williams
 Robin Williams

Well known to people who listen to Prairie Home Companion on public radio, Robin and Linda Williams & Their Fine Group present an always interesting and entertaining combination of old-time, folk, and country, gospel and bluegrass and including their own often humorous compositions.  They were a real delight. 

Linda Williams

Jim Watson

Chris Brashear

One of the most delightful elements of Joe Val for me grew out of the decision to program bands which were highly musical while not insisting on strict adherence to bluegrass.  The only other venue we've seen Robin & Linda Williams, a duo we're used to hearing on Prairie Home Companion, before this past weekend has been Merelfest.  It was a treat to see and hear them up close.  The Whites brought their gospel and country roots to the audience to great effect.  Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, with their smooth and melodic coffee house sound and vibe were a real treat.

Gerry Katz, who's largely responsible for the programming reached out to showcase top-knotch bands on the main stage as well as exciting new-comers on the Showcase Stage downstairs.  Three bands stood out for me.  We've been seeing and following Hot Mustard for nearly a year, and were happy to see this band get a main stage performance at a major festival.  They'll be at others this summer.  Gerry used the musical resources of Berklee College of Music very well, with The Berklee All-Stars and Chasing Blue standing out. 

The Joe Val Kids Academy
Ira Gitlin - Director

Directed by Washington-based banjoist Ira Gitlin and assisted by an able staff of musicians who share the ability to play well and to teach, The Joe Val Kids Academy assembled on Friday afternoon for several hours a day of practice and instruction at a variety of levels of performance.  They took the stage for their show on Sunday afternoon, greeted by the enthusiastic approval of their parents and a larger audience than many such efforts generate.  Perhaps the strength of the Sunday afternoon lineup contributed to this strong attendance.

Lining Up to Take the Stage
 People wishing to see a large selection of photos from the Kids Academy performance can use this link to access a portfolio I've posted at Google Albums. Here's the link:

Della Mae

I like to highlight bands which I see as a surprise to me that I've never seen before or to point to a more familiar group making a breakout performance.  Della Mae, which we've watched develop and improve over the past year or so and who were impressive at Art of Sound in Shelby, NC back in November broke out in a big way at Joe Val.  This is no longer a novelty band composed of women performers. It's a first rate BLUEGRASS ifs, and, or buts.  Now based in Boston, Della Mae draws its pickers from coast to coast. They hit the stage with energy, sing and play with expertise and enthusiasm, selling every song.  While this was, sadly, Avril Smith's final performance on guitar with the band, Celia Woodsmith has brought a strong voice with huge range as well as much energy to the group.  The band plays its own originals as well as bluegrass classics and is strong at every position.  They're a can't miss attraction which can be included in the lineup at any music festival to good effect.
Grace Van't Hof

Kimber Ludiker

Jenny Lynn Gardner

Amanda Kowalski

Goodbye Avril Smith

Hello Celia Woodsmith

Each year Joe Val gives several Heritage Awards to New England bluegrass performers, promoters, and media personalities who have helped promote and have contributed to bluegrass music throughout its long bl history in the region.  I often have to chuckle when we're in the South and people ask, "Is there any bluegrass music where ya'll come from?"  Joe Val (1926 - 1985) himself was a working man from Massachusetts who fell in love with Bill Monroe's music. Peter Rowan has called him "the Bluegrass voice of New England. Pictures of Heritage Award winners for 2011 appear in my account of Saturday at Joe Val.

Sunday Sing-Along Gospel Service

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Many people view Junior Sisk as the finest traditional bluegrass singer around. His slightly nasal, strong tenor voice cuts through to a listeners heart with his traditional sound, strongly influenced by The Stanley Brothers and The Johnson Mountain Boys, the great band of his youth.  He's played with great bands and now has grown into fronting his own band with humor and grace.  He has surrounded himself with first rate musicians. His programs feature wonderful old sounding new songs by his Dad, Harry Sisk, and his cousin, Timmy Massey, who plays bass in the band and sings close tenor harmonies. Billy Hawk has returned on fiddle, filling the hole no one else has occupied so successfully since he left.  Jason Tomlin on mandolin and Jason Davis on banjo contribute just the right tone.  Here's another group festivals looking for good traditional bands who don't rely on covers for their material should seriously consider.

Timmy Massey

Billy Hawk

Jason Tomlin
Jason Davis

 Timmy & Junior
Joe Val features the widest range of workshops I've ever seen anywhere.  All day workshops at the master and beginner-intermediate levels were offered on Friday with people like Tony Trischka and Phil Leadbetter leading the way.  Hour-long workshops on Saturday and Sunday kept four rooms filled all day long.  Stan Zdonik told me he had fifty-seven workshops scheduled, but I think he later added a couple.  The Boston Bluegrass Union is dedicated to education, and their major festival is a constant demonstration of this commitment.  Vendors tables were busy every day, too.


The Grascals

The Grascals are only six years old, as a band, but have brought their exciting combination of classic bluegrass and country music seasoned with new material and a level of enthusiasm and skill hard to match anywhere to new audiences while touring with major country acts and appearing on television and at NACAR tracks among other places.  Growing out of being a pick-up band of seasoned session and backup players who came together at the World Famous Station Inn in Nashville, they were recognized as Emerging Artist of the Year in 2005 and Entertainer of the Year the following two years.  Kristin Scott Benson is three time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year.  Singer/Songwriter Jamie Johnson's "I Am Proud" is a moving tribute to the children at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, to which the band has dedicated the song's royalties. This band is always exciting and entertaining.

Jamie Johnson

Terry Eldredge
Danny Roberts
Terry Smith

Kristin Scott Benson

Jeremy Abshire

Joe Val is, indeed, a superior production. The weekend was filled with highlights for us - musical and personal - as we luxuriated in the rich environment The Boston Bluegrass Union creates here each year.


  1. Hi Ted, A nit picking clarification perhaps, while Gerry Katz does do a faboulous job producing the event, Stan Zdonik is the person responsible for programming/booking the Main Stage and Reuben Shetler handles the Showcase Stage. Glad you could make it this year.

  2. Kudos to Stan & Gerry & Reuben & ALL of the BBU board folks who put together this fabulous festival every year. Glad you and Irene could make it this year -- hope it won't be your last visit! (BTW, the Grascals tune is "I Am Strong.")