Posts Tagged ‘Richard Starkey’

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Joe Val Workshops: Down Home Schoolin’

6 February 2011

A sizable chunk of the nation may be preoccupied with ice dams and rock salt, but that doesn’t mean that the Bluegrass Faithful have stowed their banjos and basses in the garage. It might be counterintuitive, but the biggest bluegrass festival in frosty Boston takes place annually in the dead of winter. Yes sir, like a freightliner that’s blown out its air brakes, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is bearing down on us. February 18th, 19th and 20th, few shall sleep in the mock Tudor splendor of the Framingham Sheraton. Get on board or jump out of the way!

I’ve already held forth here on the weird and wonderful mix of performances and jams that define the Joe Val Fest.  As, uh, exhaustive as my previous portrait was, I don’t think I gave enough emphasis to the Joe Val Fest’s major asset, which are its workshops.

Of course, many bluegrass festivals host workshops. Often there’s a tent devoted to such sessions where you can mingle with your heroes. What makes Joe Val’s workshops special? Simple: they’re indoors. It will probably always feel a bit odd to play “Foggy Mountain Top” while standing in a carpeted corridor, and the words, “the banjo licks workshop is about to begin in Conference Room C” may never sound quite right, but staging the festival in a large hotel has its consolations. Chief among these is the fact that, when you go to a workshop you can hear and be heard with a clarity that’s just not possible outdoors.

Check out this performance by Skip Gorman and Richard Starkey (a duo that sometimes performs under the name Rabbit in a Log) from a workshop at last year’s Joe Val Fest. The tune is Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin.”

Nice, no? You can hear every note of those brushed chords that Gorman plays towards the end. That’s how it is a Joe Val: you can sit inches away from legends like Bobby Osborne or Frank Wakefield as they tell tales from their early years, or you can discuss the arcana of microphone and plectrums with hotshots like Mike Guggino or Jesse Brock (can you tell I play mandolin?). In these sessions, more than just about anywhere on the circuit, you feel the intimate bond between performer and audience that’s such a key part of bluegrass culture.

“Kentucky Mandolin” has become a standard (at least among mando players) even though in human terms it’s still only middle-aged. According to the discography compiled by Neil Rosenberg, inveterate chronicler of Monrovia, this instrumental was written by Bill Monroe for a recording date on November 9th, 1967. To my ears, the minor key makes it of a piece with a number of plaintive tunes from the latter part of Monroe’s career, such as “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “My Last Days on Earth.”

To hear more from Gorman and Starkey’s workshop, click here. To check out a couple more Joe Val workshop sessions (these featuring Joe Walsh and friends), click here and here.

Finally, to learn more about the 2011 festival line-up, check out Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass Blog or tune into Jeff Boudreau’s radio show, “In the Tradition,” on WCUW in Worcester, MA on the next two Tuesdays (February  8th and 15th) from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. Jeff will be interviewing a number of the performers who will be playing at this year’s festival. The line-up is a strong one, featuring representatives of the old guard like J.D. Crowe, Robin & Linda Williams and The Whites, newer acts like Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and interesting New England groups like Hot Mustard and Della Mae. Cool, you say? Are you kidding? Freezing!

Thanks to Gerry Katz and Evan Reilly for their guidance on this post.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Bill Monroe: Ninety-Nine and Counting…

13 September 2010

William Smith Monroe was born on September 13th, 1911. Yep, while we were busy playing the countless tunes that Uncle Bill contributed to the canon, the centennial of the “Father of Bluegrass” has been creeping up on us.

Monroe died in 1996, and while we no longer have him around to share his music and glare at his sidemen, there is a veritable army of masters of “Monroe Style Mandolin.” Among the upper ranks of this faithful cohort is Skip Gorman. Gorman has played a variety of traditional music. For many years, he performed with guitarist Richard Starkey as the duo Rabbit in a Log. As the name suggests, they favored repertoire from the dawn of Bluegrass. Gorman and Starkey still play together when they can. Here they are performing a classic Monroe fiddle tune in a workshop at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

That composition— “Get Up John”— uses a highly unorthodox tuning for the mandolin. Working from the lowest to highest strings, the tuning is AF#-DD-AA-AD!* Gorman tells the story of Monroe borrowing his mandolin to play “Get Up John” at a show in the late sixties. Gorman was just a lad at the time, and it was of course an honor to have the Great Man play his instrument. In truth, however, Monroe probably made the gesture so as not to risk busting a string on his own mandolin.** That tale, some version of which I’ve heard from more than one picker, seems emblematic of Monroe in many ways, in that it shows him at once engaging with the audience and operating from some squirrelly personal motive.

Although several Monroe tunes feature alternate tunings, in and of itself, that doesn’t define Monroe Style Mandolin. What does? Well, here’s a very partial list:

  • A percussive use of the right hand. In addition to inventing the classic “bluegrass chop,” Monroe’s playing was characterized by what mandolin ace Ben Pearce calls a “really aggressive and often rhythmic tremolo.”
  • Building lots of “open” intervals into his harmonies
  • Allowing open strings to ring while playing notes on a neighboring string

Monroe liked to talk about the “ancient tones” that he built into bluegrass, and those big harmonic intervals and chiming open strings did indeed forge a connection with music from bygone eras such as shape note singing and other still more archaic traditions.

But bluegrass— the genre Monroe helped invent— has never been purely a retrograde musical style, and Monroe was always equal parts throwback and pioneer. Ricky Skaggs, among others, likes to draw the connection between Monroe’s propulsive playing method and the early rock n’ rollers. Skaggs points out that Monroe’s boogie-woogie riffs on certain breakdowns prefigure rockabilly by a decade or so.

So, Happy 99th, Mr. Monroe. Cousin Curly predicts a Global Bluegrass Awakening this time next year, so let’s all keep practicing.

Yer Pal— Curly

* PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #1: There is some discussion out there as to the order in which the G string should be tuned on “Get Up John”— AF# or F#A— with the consensus leaning toward, “It don’t make no differ’nce!”

** PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #2: The risk of busting a string is mostly in returning to normal tuning, when you crank the top strings back up to E.

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