Appalachian Road Show at Joe Val

Appalachian Road Show at the 2019 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – photo © Dave Hollender

This review is a contribution from David Hollender, a Professor in the Ensembles Department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is a classically trained bassist and a banjo player of some note, and a highly skilled photographer. Dave shared his impressions of the debut performance by Appalachian Road Show, and some of the photos he took at the Joe Val festival.

One of the highlights of this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival was the premier performance by Appalachian Road Show, a new band led by Barry Abernathy on banjo and Darrell Webb on mandolin. The lineup included Jimmy VanCleve on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar and clawhammer banjo, with impeccable bass playing by Todd Phillips. Add great lead and trio vocals and their sound was world class. 

Abernathy, Webb, VanCleve and Sutton have known each other and worked together in various bands since they were teenagers. That history contributed to their rapport and the sense of fun they had on stage. Their show flowed well and featured songs from their recently released CD on Billy Blue Records, plus tunes from Sutton’s solo projects and a few standards.

But what really makes this band special is the concept behind the project. Abernathy and Webb started the band with the express goal of presenting “a cultural experience that celebrates the broad musical heritage and lifestyle of the Appalachian mountain people.” It is a tradition they revere that has been passed down by people from whom they are descended. To this end they chose material ranging from bluegrass to blues, church music, and when Sutton switched to fretless banjo, old time. Virtuosity aside, their personal connections to the music, the history of the region and the people who played it gave their performance depth and resonance. Abernathy’s spontaneous solo rendition of Rock of Ages was a show stopper, and Webb’s recollections of his father coming home from working in the coal mines silenced the crowd and gave weight to the song that followed.

What lies ahead promises to add another dimension to their shows. Abernathy explained that eventually they hope to add slide projections of images relating to the songs. Hopefully that comes to fruition, but even without that the band presented a great show.