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News Flash: Joy Kills Sorrow on Rainy Night in Cambridge

15 March 2010

Second Cousin Curly caught a truly transcendent performance by Joy Kills Sorrow just up the street in Harvard Square over the weekend. JKS has deep roots in the Bay State, so it made sense that they’d play a release for their new CD, Darkness Sure Becomes This City, at Greater Boston’s legendary venue for acoustic music, Club Passim. Despite the torrential rain, a sold-out crowd turned out, a fact that seemed to take the band a bit by surprise.  At one point, banjo virtuoso Wes Corbett attempted without much success to determine how everyone had heard about the show.  Apparently there’s just something in the ether at this moment telling us all, “Pssst! Check these guys out!” While that’s heartening, part of Curly’s mission is to turn buzz into something more tangible, so here’s a taste of what it looked and sounded like from the back of the room the other night:

You couldn’t ask for a better manifestation of Boston’s roots music scene than this.  The instrumentation is straight out of the string band tradition, but the playing is informed by everything from the Beatles to jazz and gypsy music, and the songwriting is distinctly contemporary in its themes.

Ironically, the band takes its name from a very old tune, “When Joy Kills Sorrow.”  Bill Monroe claimed that he and his brother’s first radio gig was on a mid-western radio station, WJKS, the JKS standing for— can you guess?  Such associations notwithstanding, you only have to listen to a couple of bars of Joy Kills Sorrow to know you’re not in Kansas anymore— nor Nashville, nor Bean Blossom for that matter.

Aficionados of bluegrass— even in groovy Greater Boston— can have a hard time opening up to this stuff, but to my thinking it’s remarkable how Boston has nurtured not just a music scene over the past decade, but a bona fide sound, as distinctive and identifiable as Motown.  A lot of this is due to the burgeoning American Roots Music program at Berklee College of Music, which has served as something of a laboratory where Matt Glaser and his colleagues have played the roles of mad scientists, brashly adding droplets of jazz and pop to the DNA of old time music.

Second Cousin Curly is a lover, not a fighter, so he looks forward to exploring the full range of string band music, traditional and otherwise, in future posts.  In the meantime, you can check out a couple more clips from JKS on Vimeo or on Curly’s brand new YouTube channel.

Yer Pal— Curly

Pedantic Postscript:  I’m aware of Bela Fleck’s recording of “When Joy Kills Sorrow” on his Bluegrass Sessions album.  Although the tune had been around in bluegrass songbooks, it’s my impression that Fleck is responsible for rescuing it from obscurity, but I’d welcome input on the song’s history.

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