Grateful Bluegrass Boys. Photo by Alan Scheckter for GratefulWeb.com.

PictureThe Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club performs at the Mill Valley Chamber’s annual holiday party in December 2017.

Once a mere pipe dream for longtime Mill Valley Middle School music teacher Lori Adessa, the now-three-year-old Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club has grown to accommodate three bluegrass bands and regular live performances.

Their next live show is their latest opportunity to raise money for Kiddo!, the 36-year-old juggernaut private education foundation that supports a vast array of music and technology programs within the Mill Valley School District. Adessa and Bluegrass Club co-founder Phoebe Dong will be leading the bands through a live set at the venerable Sweetwater Music Hall on Monday, April 23, with net proceeds from ticket sales benefiting Kiddo.

The MVMS bands are opening for the Grateful Bluegrass Boys, a group of well-traveled bluegrass musicians playing classic rock songs from the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Eagles and Van Morrison. One member of the Grateful Bluegrass Boys, Aaron Redner, came through the Mill Valley School District music program and credits Joe Angiulo, the hugely influential local music teacher who retired after 30 years in Mill Valley’s schools and now sits on the board of the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society, with first connecting him to the genre.

“Joe was the person who first laid out all of the instruments in front me,” says Redner, who’s joined by a “continuing cast of characters” that includes James Nash, Isaac Cantor, Bryan Horne, Ben Jacobs and special guests. “I was drawn to the violin. I’m a living example of the Mill Valley public school system.”

Redner, who attended Old Mill, Park and the Middle School, credits Kiddo!, the district’s music program and Angiulo specifically for a career that has sent him all over the world playing 200 shows a year over a 13-year stint as a member of stalwart California bluegrass band Hot Buttered Rum.

The group’s members first bonded around the band Old and in the Way, a bluegrass supergroup that featured the likes of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, mandolin legend David Grisman, guitarist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn and renowned fiddler Vassar Clements. The band’s self-titled debut album is one of the best-selling bluegrass albums of all time.
As a violinist who got his master’s degree in classical music from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Redner was blown away by Clements.

“That was my beginning,” says Redner.

The beginning of the MVMS Bluegrass Club arrived serendipitously, when a Tam Valley student asked Adessa if he could learn banjo. Knowing that the student would later be going to the Middle School, she asked Dong, who was recognized in 2015 as Teacher of the Year by the Marin Symphony and who is closely connected to the school’s string instrument players as the orchestra director. Dong signed off, and Adessa started spreading the word. It grew quickly from there. 

“Bluegrass is in now,” Adessa says. “Whereas when I was playing, it was NOT in for most kids.”

The music itself is great for the students’ overall musical skills, particularly because each musician doesn’t play the melody at the same time. Instead, one musician plays the melody, often improvising, and the rest are playing in the background – and everything is memorized.

“I bring all of the ideas of how to perform and play the music as a bluegrass band, so it doesn’t sound like a bluegrass orchestra but a bluegrass band,” says Adessa. Since most of the club’s musicians are also in the school orchestra, the club has participated in the school’s annual winter and spring orchestra programs to date, and at community events.

“Getting to play at the Sweetwater again is huge for them,” Adessa says.

The 411: The Grateful Bluegrass Boys and the Mill Valley Middle School Bluegrass Club play the Sweetwater Music Hall on Monday, April 23, a all-ages benefit for Kiddo!. MORE INFO & TIX.

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