Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
he music at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival - held in the dead of winter slightly west of Boston - was all over the hotel. People seemingly picked wherever they could find space - rooms, hallways, outside the restaurant at the 24th annual fest sponsored by the Boston Bluegrass Union.
But for those interested in hearing from a few folks who rarely get up north, Sunday afternoon proved to be a treat with sets coming from Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, the Josh Williams Band and Charlie Sizemore Band among others.
Osborne was in fine form vocally. The bluegrass master may be 77, but his voice continues to hold up incredibly well not only on CD (he has another coming out in March on Rounder), but live.
Osborne presented new songs along with those he did with brother Sonny in the Osborne Brothers. He also let loose on mandolin a number of times, showing his adeptness continued. Osborne shared vocal chores with a few other band members, including acoustic guitarist Daryl Mosley and Dobro player Tim Graves. Mosley was very strong vocally, and his duet with Graves was solid as well.
Osborne had a slight lyric misstep in his cover of Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down. Neat idea for him to do the song, of which he said "You don't usually hear anybody in bluegrass singing this" (and how!). He apologized for blowing a few words and moved on. Osborne had not been at the festival in years and rarely gets to the Boston area, so this proved to be a real treat to hear one of the true bluegrass greats.
Sizemore opened the afternoon with a slew of songs from last year's "Good News" CD. The quality of the songs was there, and Sizemore, a long-time member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, is back in the saddle in bluegrass after having retired for awhile.
The funniest song by far was Alison's Band which has accorded him a chunk of bluegrass airplay. The song is different for bluegrass, a novelty song, in effect, about trying to be in Alison Krauss' band. As Sizemore said, he never made it into her band, but it did get him a song at least. "You never know what happens when you write a goofy little song," Sizemore said. "Who'd a thunk it? Not me."
One of his best songs, was The Silver Bugle, based on a Civil War story in the Kentucky area where Sizemore grew up. There were mainly positives to Sizemore's performance, but he did not have the vocal chops of the other folks playing as he was pitchy on a few songs.
Sizemore is fortunate to have a real strong band in Matt DeSpain on Dobro and John Pennell on bass, Josh McMurray on banjo and Danny Barnes on mandolin. DeSpain and Barnes also sang a few songs, turning in good readings.
The real surprise of the three acts seen was the middle act, the Josh Williams Band. Williams has gained his share of acclaim - he is the IBMA acoustic guitarist of the year, played with Special Consensus and Rhonda Vincent and has released several albums on his own.
Williams demonstrated considerable skills during his 65-minute set. Of course, he played guitar exceedingly well. He tended to opt for fast guitar run. The guy makes the instrument sing. The Kentucky native also displayed a sweet set of vocal cords, which leaned more towards the country end.
Williams clearly was energized to bring his band on the road with him, saying he never had one before. The good news was that with the help of a few hometown friends in the band, Williams was a pleasure to listen to. Hopefully, he'll develop more stage patter - what he said was fine, but one had the feeling that he had used these lines many times before (such as jokingly claiming the band did not know any more songs for the encore). He said several times to the crowd that he hoped to return Joe Val next year. If this outing was any indication, the answer should be a big yes.
Once again, kudos are due to the Boston Bluegrass Union for bringing an array of excellent bluegrass music up north.