Joe Val Festival shakes off New England winter

If the calendar says it’s time for the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in the Boston suburbs, it’s usually safe to bet on snow.

This year, though, you would have lost that bet. Mother Nature provided the perfect backdrop for the 34th annual edition of the festival that many bluegrassers eagerly dream about on long, cold nights. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, not emerging from hibernation to make it to the festival in other years. A friend who goes every year promised “a direct IV of bluegrass,” and she was right. From the first notes Friday until the end of the Sunday night dance party, the hotel was wall to wall bluegrass, with one exception that I’ll mention below.

Here are some of the highlights:

John Miller and Jesse Brock are back in action.

Miller was away from bluegrass for a handful of years, going through cancer treatment, a band breakup and some family issues. Brock’s hiatus was shorter; his departure from the Gibson Brothers was announced a few months back.

They officially rejoined the bluegrass family Friday night when they strolled on stage with their new band, Mainline Express. Their well-received run through a set of bluegrass standards offered a few hints of what’s ahead and gave the crowd a jumpstart on the weekend.

“Oh, yeah, he can play the mandolin,” a guy in the row behind me gushed about Brock.

The band announced from the stage that their debut single will be out in early March, with a studio album to follow a few months later on Sound Biscuit Records. The single is a bluegrass arrangement by Miller of the old country song, Pass Me By, from Johnny Rodriguez.

Welcome home, guys.

Speaking of the Gibson Brothers, they pulled triple duty on Sunday, opening with a bluegrass set, which fans expect, then adding two desserts – a brother duo and a country set featuring material from their new project, Mockingbird.

The bluegrass set featured a slightly altered lineup, with Justin Moses filling in on mandolin and resophonic guitar, and without fiddler Clayton Campbell. As always, Leigh and Eric were joined by unofficial Gibson Brother Mike Barber on bass. It offered everything we’ve come to expect: Tight harmonies, solidly crafted original songs about the way things used to be, and unceasing mom-loves-me-more brotherly banter.

The short set as a duo was actually a bridge to the country set, allowing the stage crew to bring out drums, pedal steel and Eric’s Fender Telecaster and giving Barber a chance to trade his upright bass for a four-string electric without a break that might have tempted some audience members to depart.

The electric mix was actually a subdued backdrop for Eric and Leigh’s trademark vocals and most of the crowd stayed until the end. It was a great way to introduce hardcore bluegrassers to what is, for now, their new sound.

Bluegrass supergroups come and go, but Sister Sadie keeps bringing it. Their Saturday evening set was the best I’ve heard them sound, and I’ve heard some powerful performances from them over the years.

Part of the beauty of Sister Sadie is that four powerful vocalists share the stage. Everyone expects great singing from Dale Ann Bradley. You don’t get to be IBMA’s female vocalist of the year five times by accident. But Tina Adair is just as good, and the bluesy growl that creeps into her voice at times is the perfect pairing with Bradley’s sweet sounds. And Gena Britt and Beth Lawrence are tremendous singers in their own right.

All four swapped lead singing duties Saturday night, and sang harmony in various alignments.

They were also on fire instrumentally at Joe Val. Adair’s travels along the mandolin fretboard were masterful. As for the only member of the band who didn’t sing Saturday night? Deannie Richardson merely lit up the crowd with fiddling that was hot enough to melt the snow, had there been any. How she isn’t among the nominees for IBMA fiddle player of the year every year is one of life’s great mysteries.

There’s one final element of a Sister Sadie show: Their banter. It’s well rehearsed, but it feels spontaneous. If you’re ever at a show and Bradley leans toward Adair and stage whispers, “I can’t find my capo,” prepare to laugh until your sides ache. No spoilers here. You need to see it, not read about it!

That’s it. Another Joe Val festival in the books. Let the spring and summer festival season begin.

I’m already making plans to come back.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.