Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
he Joe Val Bluegrass Festival may be a New England institution honoring the memory of one of the region's bluegrass greats, but this is not a fest mired in the past.
Not when you have one hot, well-run Saturday night of music, highlighted by one of the most talked about new bands on the bluegrass scene, The SteelDrivers.
And solid sets from everyone else who played including Alecia Nugent, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Audie Blaylock & Redline and longstanding band the Seldom Scene only helped honor Val.
The SteelDrivers could have been excused if they did not live up to their billing. After all, it seemed like just about the entire band - lead singer Chris Stapleton, mandolinist Mike Henderson, fiddler Tammy Rogers, Richard Bailey on banjo and Mike Fleming on bass - were also nursing something unhealthy.
But that did not seem to dissuade them from showing why their January debut on Rounder was praised. Stapleton, best known as a solid songwriter (he penned number one hits "Never Wanted Nothing More" for Kenny Chesney and "Your Man" for Josh Turner), does not have your high lonesome bluegrass voice. He opts for a bluesy, soulful feel to his grass, and that may well be what sets The SteelDrivers apart.
The playing was solid from the entire band as would be expected from such a veteran outfit. Rogers and Fleming were particularly strong in adding backing vocals.
The SteelDrivers infused their bluegrass with a fresh approach. It may not sit all that well with bluegrass purists, but for those who don't mind a bit of a blurring of some musical lines with solid playing, singing and songs, The SteelDrivers filled the bill.
Nugent is a Louisiana singer who mixed country into her bluegrass. She was a strong vocalist with an easy-going style.
Nugent, who does not play an instrument (very unusual in the bluegrass world), fortunately has a very capable band to help her out with Jennifer Strickland (bass), Thomas Wywrot (banjo, guitar), Tony Watt (guitar) and Jason Robertson (mandolin).
Blaylock served for a long time with the late, great Jimmy Martin along with Rhoda Vincent. He stepped out on his own eventually and does a good job handling the vocal chores. Three-part harmony on "My Blue Eyed Darling" sounded very pretty.
He isn't afraid to honor his mentor either playing several Martin songs during his set along with covering folks like Haggard. It also would have been nice if Blaylock did not tend to play songs of other artists.
Unlike the other performers during the evening, one had the sense that Blaylock wasn't the most natural when it came to stage patter, sounding like he could have uttered the same lines no matter where he was playing that night.
But in what seemed like a given at this festival the backing band was solid in playing a driving, hard-edged bluegrass. That would include Rodney Worley (mandolin), Matt Wallace (bass), Evan Ward (banjo), and Patrick McAvinue (fiddle). What made Redline difference is that Blaylock is playing with a bunch of kids, two of his band mates - McAvinue and Lord - were not even 20. These guys have a solid future though because even at this tender age, they're real good.
The Steep Canyon Rangers have forged a name for themselves as part of the new group of bluegrass bands making their mark. The Rangers won 2006 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year as evidence.
Lead singer Woody Platt is a really solid singer with a country feel at times to his vocals He excelled on "If I Could Make a Living Loving Pretty Women."
He is capably aided by the rest of the Rangers - Graham Sharp (banjo), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass), Mike Guggino (mandolin), who was especially good on Bill Monroe's "The Tennessee Blues," and Nicky Sanders (fiddle).
They mixed it up during their set, going a capella on "I Can't Sit Down."
The Seldom Scene closed out the night with songs from different periods of the band's (thus far) 37-year career. As one Scenester said, no one would have expected the band to last this long when they started in Washington, DC.
The only original member at this point is Ben Eldredge on banjo. The rest of this veteran band - Dudley Connell (guitar and lead vocalist), Fred Travers (Dobro), Ronnie Simpkins (bass), Lou Reid (mandolin) - know their way around a bluegrass tune even if they weren't there at the start.
They may be advancing in years, but none of them seem to have lost any of their skills. Connell is a particularly fine singer. And they went a field for some of their song choices, such as Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Steve Earle's "Hometown Blues."
On a winter night in the northeast, the Joe Val Festival once again offered a diverse, enjoyable night of bluegrass.