Joe's joy

Blend jazz and pop influences into bluegrass music and you get Joy Kills Sorrow. When the quintet performs July 5 at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Weber Music Hall, it will be a homecoming for former Duluthian Joe Walsh, who plays mandolin...

Blend jazz and pop influences into bluegrass music and you get Joy Kills Sorrow.

When the quintet performs July 5 at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Weber Music Hall, it will be a homecoming for former Duluthian Joe Walsh, who plays mandolin.

For Walsh, music is a way to bring joy to others and himself. "It's a positive way to spend time with people," he said.

In December, Walsh graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston as its first student with mandolin as his principal instrument. The college specializes in contemporary music studies and Walsh entered through its acoustic strings program. Alumni, according to the college's Web site, include producer/arranger Quincy Jones; rock singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge; and "Tonight Show" band leader Kevin Eubanks.

Walsh said he went to Berklee to learn about jazz and how to approach music, rather than issues specific to the mandolin.


Walsh, 26, is an accomplished mandolin player who played at a professional level when he entered the college, said Dave Hollender, a Berklee professor.

"He's the strongest one we've had to date," he said, adding that he considers Walsh one of the top two mandolin players in the Boston area.

Walsh's band, Joy Kills Sorrow, departs from the traditional, often lonesome bluegrass sound with up-tempo songs that have a driving, rhythmic sound, Hollender said.

"It's a lot more subtle in the texture and the interpretation of the songs. They take traditional songs and bring things out differently. ... They really go out of their way to be creative and original with the tunes," he said.

John McGann, with whom Walsh studied the mandolin at Berklee, said this about Walsh in an e-mail: "He is a great player with a unique touch and personality on the instrument. I always look forward to hearing him, as he has the qualities I like most in a musician -- a broad range of ideas and sounds, and seriousness of purpose tempered with a good sense of humor."

Ted Heinonen, a Duluth mandolin player, said Walsh is an incredible musician who is exciting to listen to. Walsh approached Heinonen a few years ago, asking to take mandolin lessons but Heinonen said Walsh didn't need lessons -- just some suggestions. Walsh also used to attend local bluegrass jam sessions and the old-timers enjoyed his playing, Heinonen said.

Joy Kills Sorrow plays newer pieces that are adventurous and fun and fuse jazz and bluegrass, Heinonen said. "The band is tight," he said.



Walsh started Joy Kills Sorrow with Karl Doty, a friend from Duluth who also was studying in Boston, and a few other friends about two years ago. Doty no longer is with the band.

Walsh describes Joy Kills Sorrow as "a genre-inclusive bluegrass band." "We're sort of ostensibly a bluegrass band, but we have other influences," he explained.

The banjo player, Adam Larrabee, has taught jazz theory and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the bass player, Bridget Kearney, has a jazz background. Guitarist Matt Arcara won the National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, Kan., last year.

The band recently changed vocalists. Margaret Glaspy, who also plays fiddle, replaced Heather Masse, who now is part of the Wailin' Jennys vocal trio.

Walsh's parents, Jean and Kevin Walsh, still live in Duluth. Jean Walsh said Joe was musical from infancy. When she would wind up a musical mobile, she said it was like she was winding him up because he would start kicking and moving around.

Walsh started taking piano lessons in kindergarten and later played the trombone. He was a typical kid, and didn't like to practice, his mother said.

Walsh's family moved to Duluth in 1995. He attended Duluth East High School, but his interest in theater later prompted him to transfer to the Perpich Center for Arts Education arts high school in the Twin Cities, where he graduated in 1999.

"More than the craft of theater or music, I learned there that there was a sense of validity [in] doing art," he said about the arts high school.


As a teenager, Walsh started playing the guitar and was drawn into the singer-songwriter folk world. "Ani DiFranco really engaged me in high school. That led me to more folk singers and that led to quasi-bluegrass," he said.

Walsh never expected he'd become a bluegrass musician. "It's a hard flavor to start on," he said. "I've grown to really enjoy it and appreciate it."

After high school, Walsh moved to Maine to take part in an AmeriCorps program building trails. Music became a bigger part of his life. He joined a band that already had a banjo and a guitar, so he took up the mandolin.

Walsh liked the sound of the mandolin and before long he got better and began getting gigs.

While attending college in Maine and Washington state, he realized he was spending more time making music than studying. "It just became clear I either had to play less music or go to a school where that was what I was doing," he said. That revelation led him to apply to Berklee.


Walsh, who is living in Brattleboro, Vt., this summer, is in demand as a mandolin player. He has performed with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, Peter Ostroushko and Bela Fleck.

In addition to Joy Kills Sorrow, Walsh plays is in another bluegrass band, a folk bluegrass band, and a klezmer bluegrass band. "I have work lined up for a while," he said.


Jean Walsh said her son has an amazing resilience to roll with the punches in the musical world. He can deal with the disappointment if a band member leaves or a booking falls through, she said.

And he's having a great deal of fun as a musician.

"He's following his heart," she said. "He can just pick up the instrument and be happy."

LINDA HANSON covers family issues and religion. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335 or by e-mail at .

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