Monday, February 18, 2008

Jammin' at Joe Val

The Joe Val Bluegrass festival is held at a 6-story Sheraton hotel that resembles a castle.
Upon entering this bluegrass kingdom, you are in for an experience that may at first seem more like a conference or convention than a festival because of its indoor setting, but as soon as you arrive, you realize this is no ordinary hotel experience. The entire hotel is filled with bluegrass musicians and fans, and there is usually a jam or two taking place right in the main lobby.

When one thinks of elevator music, it usually brings to mind some bland, boring background music meant to relax, but invariably having the opposite effect (at least to me). But at the festival this past weekend in Framingham, MA , the term "elevator music" took on a whole new meaning. As you ride the elevator between floors, you can hear the sounds of banjos and mandolins getting closer and closer and then surprise! The doors slide open to a pickin' party. Don't care for that rendition of "Old Home Place"? Step back in, go up or down a floor and find another group playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". This is what turns a 3-day concert into a real bluegrass festival, since bluegrass is a type of music where a high percentage of the audience are musicians themselves. You can just travel between floors listening to or taking part in endless jams all weekend.

Of course, these spontaneous jams are just one part of the 3 day event, the main focus of which is to present high quality bluegrass music from a wealth of national and regional bands. This year's festival seemed to be skewed more to the traditional side of bluegrass. On Friday night, Miller's Crossing, from NY, sang about a Cabin in the Pines and other such classic bluegrass subjects, and Mike Cleveland's aptly named band Flamekeeper closed out the night with their hard-driving music to a very enthusiastic crowd. Even though that was his only official set on the main stage, he joined several others the next day. It is such a joy to watch Michael play fiddle. After that I was in no mood to settle in for the night so I went wandering the halls in search of more music, and it was easy to find. Just step into aforementioned elevator, press the button and see what happens.

The next day, after a visit to the fitness center, I decided to try a yodeling workshop, and apparently I wasn't the only one intrigued by this, as it was standing room only in one of the conference rooms on the lower level. Have you ever heard of harmony yodeling? I wasn't sure I had, but it sounded very nice when Alan Kaufman and his partner demonstrated it, and all of us weekend cowpokes were eager to try it as well. Yodel-lay-ee-hoo!

After that I went to hear Frank Wakefield Band upstairs in the main room - he has a unique style, and is quite entertaining to watch, impishly playing his mandolin in his band-mates' ears while they are trying to take a break. He seemed to be having a great time up there, but I was pretty far back during that set, and got to appreciate his antics from a closer angle at a workshop later on. I also went downstairs to the vendor's area to hear some bands on the showcase stage. The whole lower level of the hotel has been renovated, so it is less maze-like and more open, so it was easier to listen to the bands on the showcase stage. Representatives from Grey Fox bluegrass festival had a table set up there, with pictures and info on the new site for that festival, and most people stopping by seemed receptive to and excited about the new digs in Greene County, NY.

My favorite band on Saturday was the Steeldrivers, a band with a traditional sort of name, but one of the less "bluegrassy" sounds, even though the instrumentation was traditional string band. The guitarist/lead vocalist had a bluesy, outlaw-country style, and harmonized beautifully with the female fiddle player. Looking forward to seeing them at other festivals this summer.

Steeldrivers Steep Canyon Rangers

Audie Blaylock and Redline, then the Steep Canyon Rangers, got things back on the hard-driving bluegrass track. Veterans Seldom Scene closed out the night on the main stage. I enjoyed another night of jam-hopping, though I was not inspired to join in with my bluegrass accordion, since some of my usual cohorts were missing. One sign of the festival's success is that the hotel sells out so quickly, months in advance, so not everyone that would like to attend can make it. Sure there are other hotels in the area, but if you want to participate in the after hours jams, it is best to stay on site.

Sunday was a mad scramble to get everything packed up and ready to go -then downstairs for more music. My favorite band on Sunday was a family group called the Abrams Brothers, 14 and 16 year old brothers from Canada, with a cousin on bass and father on guitar, plus Bob Burtch on Mandolin and Brandon Green on banjo. They were amazing instrumentalists and did a varied set of bluegrass, gospel, progressive instrumentals, and some covers of Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs from their upoming recording.

Reminiscent of the time the Grascals filled in for someone due to illness a few years ago, the
surprise set of the afternoon was a last minute substitution. The band Dailey and Vincent were snowed in somewhere and couldn't make it, so James King and Audie Blaylock's bands joined forces for a rousing set of double-barreled bluegrass in the style of Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and other classic material. It was a great unplanned set. Here's a little snippet of them doing "How Mountain Girls can Love":

Blue Highway wound things up for the weekend, with their dobro accented bluegrass and thoughtful country songwriting. And speaking of Stanley Bros, they augmented their set with some very funny Ralph Stanlely impressions, including a mock rendition of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog. As usual the weekend went by much too fast, so we're Goin' Down the Road feelin' Bad, like this guy:

But thanks to the magic of digital photography and youtube we can already start reliving it! Some of my other photos of the 2008 Joe Val festival can be viewed here. And it won't be long now til festival season is in full swing. Next weekend there is more festive living on tap at the RI Mardi Gras Ball. See, winter's not so bad!

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