What: Joe Val Bluegrass Festival
Where: Framingham, MA
When: February, the weekend before President’s Day (this year it’s February 13-15)
Why it’s neat-o: This is a real deal, bonafide bluegrass festival – what makes it different is that it’s all indoors. From the moment you arrive, and see the brick turrets, ‘70s-colored, Swiss chalet-esque siding, and crowds of people toting at least one instrument each, it’s obvious that you’re entering a different world for a couple of days.
Upon entering the large, open lobby, there are groups of pickers (people who play bluegrass music) and spectators scattered throughout, and just about everyone is smiling. There is also 24-hour picking allowed on the first two floors of the hotel, so you can’t go far without running into live music.
If you prefer to watch professionals perform, you can head to the main stage; there’s typically someone performing until 10pm on Friday and Saturday (Sunday performances wrap up earlier, but the first two floors are still picker-friendly ‘til Monday morning). Joe Val has some of the biggest names in bluegrass every year, and it’s a real treat to be able to just toddle on downstairs and watch some of the greats. After a performance, you can usually meet them at their merchandise tables right outside the performance space. I think that is one of the coolest things about Joe Val, and bluegrass festivals in general – there is very little separation between performers and audience, which makes for a real friendly atmosphere, where you might just meet one of your idols!
If you’re interested in smaller acts, and a more intimate space, every one of the bands performing at the showcase stage would be thrilled to see you. This is where the up-and-comers show what they’ve got, and hope to get noticed, although some pretty big names have performed on this stage too, at various points in their careers. It’s a great way to discover your new favorite band.
There are also workshops happening on the ground floor throughout the festival; if you’re looking to learn a new instrument, hone your skills, or get a peek into how performers do some of the stuff they do, these are an amazing bonus feature. There are a variety of levels and topics, so there is truly something for everyone.
Vendors are also located on the ground floor, so if you happen to be in the market for an instrument, it’s a great place to check out. I can personally vouch for Born Again Basses out of Haverhill, MA; I bought my first upright bass from him, and it was in great shape and very fairly priced. He has been at Joe Val every year that I’ve been, so be sure to check out his beautiful, refurbished basses.
At the heart of this festival, though, is the hotel pickin’. Whether or not you play anything, it is so much fun to wander the halls and hear what people are playing. There are some downright incredible players here, and you never know when you might come across a jam session happening in one of their rooms, or by an elevator. The professionals playing the main stage often wander the halls, too, and if they hear something they like, they will join in if they have time. As long as you don’t mind a little debauchery, late-night wanderings are especially fun!
If you’re stuck inside for the New England winter, this is such a wonderful escape from the ice and howling winds outside; it’s truly a little slice of summertime, but with your very own private shower.
For more information, visit the official Joe Val Bluegrass Festival website.