Friday, December 15, 2006

How Joe Val became IBMA "festival of the year"

When the 22nd annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival kicks off the 2007 northeastern roots music festival calendar outside Boston in mid-February, it will be the event's first running since gaining recognition last fall as the "festival of the year" by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).

I had a chance to sit down with Joe Val's two producers, Gerry Katz and Stan Zdonik of the Boston Bluegrass Union, for a discussion of how a small event that began as a benefit fundraiser grew to become a world-class festival.

This year's festival runs Presidents' Day weekend, February 16-18, at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham MA, a western suburb of Boston. The lineup presents a potent mix of traditional and contemporary bluegrass stars with a dash of jazzgrass sprinkled in. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, Chris Thile & The How to Grow a Band, Dan Paisley & Southern Grass, and The Infamous Stringdusters head up the bill.

The festival hotel is already sold out but two nearby overflow hotels have rooms available. Walkup tickets are priced at $80 for a weekend pass, with various early-bird, member, and single-day options available.

Zdonik credits part of the success of the festival, which is structured as a non-profit educational charity, to the passion of the organizers and volunteers that make it happen. "Nobody makes a dime off of it, we're only in it for the love," he said. "We are in a position to create a safe haven for artists to present their craft at the highest possible level," Katz added. "When it works, we walk away feeling we have established a friendship between the artist and audience."

The festival got its start in 1985 as an impromtu benefit and tribute to Boston bluegrass legend Joe Val when he was terminally ill. After securing a venue at a local high school, Zdonik made a handful of calls to musicians to see who could perform. By the next night, he was getting calls from people asking to get involved--bluegrass artists like Tony Rice but also folk singer Tom Rush and rocker Peter Wolf of J. Geils Band.

In the end, 23 bands performed from more than 1000 attendees, and $12,000 was raised for Joe Val's family. Val passed away two days later.

For the next few years, organizers repeated the event as a free event on a small scale, but then Katz and the BBU came into the picture. The BBU ran a bluegrass concert series in Cambridge, Mass., and it seemed like a natural fit for the association to take on the fledgling festival.

Katz brought a new sense of professionalism to the production. For the next several years, it continued to be run as a summer outdoor one-day festival, but now it was a paid event. Even so, it wasn't thriving.

Then, after attending an IBMA conference and meeting one of the producers of the Wintergrass festival, Katz surprised Zdonik with a new idea. He suggested moving it indoors during the winter season and expanding it to a full weekend event. "I said, 'You have to be crazy,' but it turned out to be the perfect decision," Zdonik recalled.

It turned out that there were multiple advantages to moving indoors. On President's Day weekend, it would face little competition, provide a outlet for pent-up demand for entertainment, and would not be subject to uncertainties of weather. The three-day weekend would allow a full schedule of Sunday performances.

Also, the costs and logistical complications of running an indoor event are greatly reduced over outdoor festivals, Katz said. Since the host hotel makes its money from guest room sales, the ballroom and other festival facilities are free to the promoter. Setup and breakdown is easy; unlike an outdoor event where there are a host of special needs, an indoor event may need only staging and lighting.

On the other hand, an indoor festival limits the potential size of the event. The Sheraton ballroom holds 935 chairs and no more, Katz said.

The first several years, the indoor version of the Joe Val Festival was held at the Dedham Holiday Inn and later moved to the Framingham Sheraton. In short order, it became the premier winter bluegrass event in New England, attracting fans from all over the Northeast.

With the festival's educational charter, the program is packed with learning opportunities, including a kids' program, jam camp, and more than 40 workshops. Since the workshops are held in smallish rooms, there's a greater likelihood of meaningful learning than with festivals holding workshops on a large stage, Katz said.

According to Katz and Zdonik, a sizable percentage of the audience are musicians themselves, and the lobbies are filled with picking jams. Most attendees, even locals who want to enjoy a full festival experience, stay onsite or at a satellite hotel and stay for the whole weekend, though single day passes are available for Friday and Sunday (but not Saturday).

Like many long-running festivals, Joe Val faces a challenge in maintaining its musical personality while adapting to newer trends. Joe Val's program leans toward traditional bluegrass, though the presenters mix in some progressive styles to attract younger festival-goers.

For example, this year's booking of Chris Thile's jazzgrass How to Grow a Band is designed to to appeal to younger music fans, with the hope that they discover they also like the traditional sound.

Joe Val himself was a high-lonesome traditionalist, and the festival seeks to keep his spirit alive through reunions of his band, sales of his CDs, showing of a performance film, and disseminating information about Val on the festival website and at the event. They also encourage performers to play some of his songs, and share any memories they may have.

Katz said that receiving the award represents a recognition by the bluegrass community. "It demonstrates that we are not just the best winter festival in New England, but that we measure up to any bluegrass festival for the quality of presetnations, workshop activity, the vibe, and the overall cultural experience."

In a practical sense, the recognition will also help in attracting sponsors and high-end vendors to the event, and is also a great validation for volunteers and patrons.

It is also a recognition that indoor winter festivals are a growing trend. With Wintergrass (which won the IBMA best festival award in 2005) and Joe Val leading the way, other promoters are putting on indoor events, notably the California Bluegrass Association, which launched its high-profile Supergrass festival in Bakersfield, Calif., last year and will hold its 2007 event February 1-4.

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