Joe K. Walsh Album Release feat. Darol Anger, Grant Gordy, John Suntken, and Brittany Karlson
January 21, 2023 @ 8:00 PM
7 pm doors – 8 pm show
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Joe K. Walsh: If Not Now, Who?
Joe K. Walsh first became widely known as mandolinist with the Gibson Brothers just as the
sibling-led band was reaching the peak of the traditional bluegrass scene. In the last decade,
however, Joe has become one of the most highly regarded progressive mandolinists around,
playing with such forward-thinking acoustic string musicians as Darol Anger, Brittany Haas,
Danny Barnes, Mike Block, Molly Tuttle, Grant Gordy, Tony Trischka, Celia Woodsmith, and
many more. While he can shred with the best of them, he’s best known for his exceptional tone
and taste, his intuitive collaborative abilities, and his creative approach to traditional music.
After the release of his playfully titled new album, If Not Now, Who?, he’s likely to become
known as a composer and bandleader as well.
Joe is an avid educator, and his work as associate professor at the Berklee College of Music had
a lot to do with the genesis of If Not Now, Who?. On his previous solo recordings (and recent
albums with the band Mr Sun), his compositions have shared space with incisive covers and
obscure traditional tunes, but If Not Now, Who? is the first album consisting entirely of his
instrumental compositions. Many of the tunes came out of his Berklee tune-writing class, in
which students (and teacher) had to write a tune a week for a semester.
In addition to Joe’s compositions, which reflect his myriad musical influences—from Bill Frisell
to Bill Monroe (as he acknowledges on the bluesy waltz “The Bills”)—If Not Now, Who? is
notable for the interplay between the players and Joe’s instinctual arrangements, which at first
sound spontaneous but are revealed on closer listening to be incredibly complex. The
instrumental roles blur and morph within sections, and there’s rarely a time when a solo is
accompanied in a traditional manner. The deceptive simplicity of some of the composition’s
lyrical and riff-based melodies allows the musicians to play freely while keeping the original
melodic and rhythmic material in mind. Instruments move in and out of focus, creating intricate
textures that are clearly crafted to sound improvised. Though the arrangements make the
music sound spontaneous and free, this isn’t jam band music. Each section has a purpose, and
there are no long solos intended solely as displays of virtuosity.
Joe is an acknowledged mandolin virtuoso, but on many of the tunes on If Not Now, Who?, he
plays mandola and octave mandolin, which lack the predefined musical roles often associated
with the mandolin, freeing Joe from any expectations of unfettered virtuosity. And by including
iconoclasts like Grant Gordy, who is constantly reinventing the role of the acoustic guitar in
progressive string band music, and Matt Flinner, who is best known for his inventive mandolin
playing but brings his creative sense to the banjo on If Not Now, Who?, Joe’s band rarely slips
into the traditional roles you’d expect from a quintet of mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, bass
(Karl Doty), and fiddle (John Mailander and Ella Jordan).
The opening track, “Madison,” is a harbinger of what to expect from this all-star ensemble and
sets up the album perfectly. The banjo intro reveals a snippet of the bluesy melody, before Joe
states the theme, backed by wispy tremolo and arpeggios from the guitar. The second
statement of the melody features the banjo and mandolin trading melody and improvised lines.
The first real solo is next, with the guitar expanding on the implications of the melody and
stretching the harmony, backed first by mandolin and banjo and then by chords from the twin
fiddles, which continue their backup roles into Joe’s next solo. The twin fiddles then get their
chance to shine, starting with a harmonized version of the melody and then breaking free,
improvising with quick trades and bluesy counterpoint. The banjo is next and ends its solo by
playing bits of the melody along with the mandolin. “Madison” goes out with the bass playing
the melodic theme by itself and then in tandem with the mandolin.
All this complexity, however, is only revealed after a close listen. The first impression is of a
group of inventive, like-minded musicians enjoying each other’s musical company. And this
impression continues throughout the album, as they explore and expand on the beautiful
mandola tune “When It’s Over”; the lyrical, loping (and vaguely Celtic) groove of “Palmer”; the
jazzy waltz time of the title track; the circular, fractured swing of “Globe, Thistle”; the
contemporary bluegrass of “Rosalind”; and more.
Although Joe had already established his musical voice with his two previous solo albums, If Not
Now, Who? reaches a new level of maturity and vision, and the result is the emergence of a
new ensemble sound in the progressive string band scene. If Not Now, Who? is a brilliant,
natural synthesis of Joe’s musical experience and influences that ranks among the best the
contemporary acoustic music world has produced.
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